The Champions: The Complete Series (Special Edition) Review
Three agents from Nemesis, an organisation that enforces international law, are assigned to a mission deep within China to disrupt operations at a bacteriological weapons laboratory. Signalled to by a mole within the plant, agents Craig Stirling (Stuart Damon), Sharon Macready (Alexandra Bastedo) and Richard Barrett (William Gaunt) enter the building and steal samples of a newly developed bacteria, hurrying so as not to draw attention to themselves. But when the guards outside see the corpse of one within, they sound the alarm. As the guards come running, Stirling, Macready and Barrett escape in a jeep to a remote location where their plane awaits them but the Chinese army are not far behind and as their plane takes off, a lucky shot destroys one engine as the plane attempts to climb to clear the Himalayas.
Crashing in the mountains, Stirling remains conscious long enough to see a strange old man appear by his side, whose softly spoken words of comfort are the last thing that he hears as he passes out. Carried into what appears to be a hospital but feeling dazed, both by the accident and by his hallucinations, Stirling wakes up back where he began, lying outside of the downed aircraft but feeling fine. Shaking Macready and Barrett awake, they find that their wounds have healed but that two days have passed since the accident.
Hearing the Chinese army arriving, Stirling and Macready head one way and Barrett another, one being captured whilst the other escapes. However, Barrett learns, after another visit by the old man, who simply appears by his side, that they have been given special powers through their healing, including telepathy, great strength, athleticism and fast reflexes. Led away by the Chinese army, Stirling and Macready learn about this through telepathy but with Barrett in pursuit, the three of them overpower their captors and escape. Bound by a promise to keep what happened to them a secret, Stirling, Macready and Barrett use their abilities for the good of Nemesis, for the good of the united world and for law, order and justice!
There's a particular type of show produced by ITC during the sixties and seventies that make them, in this era of DVD box sets, eminently collectable. It should be no surprise that The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan's cult production for ITC in 1967, was probably one of the first box sets that many of us, myself included, picked up. British, stylish and very watchable, The Prisoner is so remarkable a show that it seems to be tailor-made for DVD, where one can pore over the peculiarities of the show so long as one might wish to, all the while without any loss of clarity in the picture. And yet, the lightness and the sense of drama in The Prisoner is not unique to that show, being something that ITC could do with a regularity that is quite startling. Department S, Jason King, Danger Man, UFO and The Saint were not only successes in their own right but are evidence of a style that ITC stamped on their productions, showing a world that was both glamourous but deadly with it, where Britain sat firmly at the centre of international affairs and where the forces of law and order always triumphed over criminality and anarchy.
What often links these ITC productions is a tendency to avoid the ridiculous within what is otherwise fantastic. Even in The Prisoner, McGoohan used comedy and drama to balance the surrealism in the series, albeit that there are times, such as in Fall Out, where the balance is lost. It's fitting, then, that The Champions, a show concerned with the adventures of three secret agents with superhuman powers, avoids them having the gift of flight, X-ray vision and of heat rays in favour of simply being that bit stronger, faster and more athletic than the average man or woman. Yes, able to jump higher than you or I but not to leap over tall buildings. To lift a car, maybe, but not over their heads and certainly never to run at speeds that leave them but a blur. If any of their powers can be described as magical, it's the telepathic bond that they share with each other, used more to alert one another to danger than for a gimmick.
Equipped with these superpowers, The Champions are assigned by their head at Nemesis, Tremayne (Anthony Nicholls), on various missions that require their particular skills. Given that they swore to keep it a secret, Tremayne is entirely unaware of what happened to his agents in Tibet but has no fear about sending them on spectacularly deadly missions. Told to bring down murderous arms smugglers (The Gun-Runners), mad scientists (The Experiment) and Nazis (The Survivors, The Final Countdown and The Search), as well as to avert a nuclear explosion (Happening), the assassination of Tremayne (The Fanatics) and the destruction of a nuclear missile base in Antarctica (Operation Deep Freeze) the three Champions never disappoint. Together, they have something of a Bondian ability in the field in that one never really feels that their lives, regardless of what happens, are really in danger, whilst they also have a winning way with wisecracks and a wardrobe that's either dashing (Stirling and Barrett) and beautiful (Macready).
With some great locations - being something of a sucker for confined spaces, I particularly liked the submarines of Twelve Hours, The Search and The Silent Enemy - and a real sense of mystery, such as the episodes Shadow of the Panther, The Silent Enemy, The Night People, The Champions is always good and often excellent with enough variation to keep one interested. The Silent Enemy, for example, offers plenty of suspense as The Champions are assigned to duty on board a nuclear submarine that sailed into a Scottish port with all of its crew dead. Amongst the very best, though, is an episode like The Night People with its hooded figures, disappearances in the woods and Satanic symbols is exactly the kind of hokum that will either keep you awake at night or send you off to bed tingling with ghostly chills. Then, changing tack completely, The Champions has an episode like The Interrogation, a two-hander that stars Colin Blakely alongside Stuart Damon as he attempts to crack Stirling using psychological torture whilst Tremayne looks on dispassionately.
If you detect the hand of Brian Clemens (The Avengers, The New Avengers and The Professionals) behind The Champions, then you have been very astute as although Clemens wrote only one episode, his particular pitch, being a breathless excitement that lasts until the dying seconds, is felt throughout. And The Champions does share with The Avengers and The Professionals the ability to surprise. To Trap A Rat, for example, deals with the kind of crime that Bodie and Doyle would regularly deal with, being the lethal effects of a batch of spiked drugs in London, which they're alerted to by the breakdown of Jane Purcell (Kate O'Mara). Of course, Clemens isn't the only stalwart of British television in here. There's also Terry Nation (Dr Who, The Survivors and Blake's 7) as well as the pleasure in seeing a good many British character actors appearing in supporting roles, such as Anton Rodgers (Reply Box No. 666), Nicholas Courtney (The Experiment) and Paul Eddington (Autokill). Donald Sutherland even makes an appearance in the voodoo-tinged Shadow of the Panther.
Being an ITC production, though, there are a good many laughs to be had with this. Tripped up whilst descending the stairs at a party, Richard Barrett leaps off the stairs, rolls across the floor and glances behind him, all the while holding a tray containing four glasses of champagne and not spilling a drop. In another episode, Sharon Macready interrupts two men attempting to steal her car by pulling the vehicle across the road with one hand, leaving them spluttering in a puddle by the side of the road whilst in Full Circle and, revealing the reuse of footage in the show, The Mission, she avoids the attentions of two lecherous hitchhikers by appearing to throw them out of her car in the middle of a darkened tunnel. Clearly, the intention of creators Monty Berman and Dennis Spooner was not only to impress and to thrill an audience but to let them have fun with the series and with that in mind, they've more than succeeded. Despite being something of a regular in the television listings - it was shown on BBC2 during their cult evening schedules some ten or twelve years ago and was being shown recently on ITV4 in their cult television slot - there's plenty here that's very fresh with a tendency to avoid being cliched.
That's so very true of a great many ITC productions, leaving The Champions as a show that will appeal to anyone with a liking for The Prisoner, The Avengers or even the peculiar stylings of Jason King. Funny, stylish, occasionally spooky and frequently exciting, The Champions is classic British television from a time when it could well claim to be the best in world. Whether or not it was is debatable but it was certainly the best looking and The Champions is a fine example of television from that era.
Network's transfers of archive television shows tend towards being a particular type - never startlingly good but always quite decent. Never coming with an expensive restoration nor audio remix, they do, however, always appear to have captured what the show must have been like on its first broadcast. Their excellent work on Space: 1999, for example, undid the poor work on that show's first release by presenting it as one would have seen ITV broadcast it during the seventies.
The Champions is, though, a slight exception to this. It's a very solid release, perhaps not the best work that Network have ever had carried out but very good nonetheless, with a clear, steady image that's let down slightly by being interlaced but shouldn't cause anyone a problem. There's a lack of detail in the image, however, but this is probably due more to the era in which The Champions was first produced than any fault of Network's. However, The Champions does, in all other respects, look very good with the picture capturing the particular contradiction of the late-sixties - gorgeous colour in an era that was otherwise quite drab.
The DD2.0 Mono is actually pretty good, with a clarity to the dialogue that's impressive. It probably helps that The Champions was filmed within the confines of Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire and although that does make it sound somewhat unnatural - there is, for example, very little ambient noise and it does have that sense of claustrophobia that's common in ITC productions of the era - it remains a very good-sounding release. Unfortunately, however, and this is something of a problem with Network releases, there are no subtitles on any of the thirty episodes here.
As one who has fond memories of No Place Like Home, it's odd to listen to the warm tones of William Gaunt without hearing him offer neighbour Trevor Botting a sherry whilst sat in the greenhouse. Or bemoaning the presence of Raymond in his home. Still, without his wife Beryl but with Alexandra Bastedo and Stuart Damon, Gaunt is here in two tracks spread over these nine discs, the three of them having recorded commentaries that not only informative and with an obvious affection for the show but are also very funny. Stuart Damon even likens the three of them to MST3K at one point as, led by William Gaunt, they laugh along with the show and crack gags about each other and at the production. "I could have been killed there...that was about a four-foot drop to the studio floor!", says William Gaunt at one point as his Richard Barrett almost falls out of an aeroplane.
There are two such commentaries in this box set on the episodes The Beginning and Autokill, which also features a commentary with Malcolm Christopher, Ken Baker and Roy Ward Baker. Much more dry but only slightly more technical, this is a rambling commentary that picks at all sorts as it passes, from the makes of cars used in the series, the name of the make-up artist and the rather classic cuts of the fashions used in The Champions. One won't learn very much from these commentaries but whilst this latter one isn't bad, those with the cast are really very good indeed.
As well as these commentaries, Network have really surpassed themselves during their production of this set, such that anyone impressed with their release of Space: 1999 will be equally fond of this. The Special Features begin on the eighth disc with We Are The Champions (37m04s), a new documentary on the show that features its three stars, who begin it by meeting for the first time in years - Stuart Damon and Alexandra Bastedo hadn't met since filming finished on The Champions in 1969 - and their sense of excitement is palpable. Travelling in two cars - Gaunt and Bastedo in one, Damon in the other - they talk aloud about their memories and all three of them, particularly Bastedo, look terrific, much more so than they ought to given their ages. The obvious warmth in their reunion, which is something of a release given Damon's nervousness, is a joy and much, much better than the gimmicks that were employed in Channel 4's recent Bring Back The... series.
With the cast back together, the producers cut in interviews with Ken Baker, Cyril Frankel, Johnny Goodman and Brian Clemens, who discuss the making of the show and, like the cast, have an obvious affection for it. The documentary then covers the casting of the actors, the production of the series, various problems and mistakes and, finally, how it was received. Throughout, contributors like Clemens, Frankel and the three members of the cast have good memories of the time, enjoyed their involvement in it and have a lot of fun remembering the funnier moments in the production.
This is followed by the Artistes Test Footage (2m47s) and a Stills Gallery (27m34s) that is soundtracked by incidental music by Edwin Astley. On to the ninth disc and after We Are The Champions, the next best special feature is Legend Of The Champions (81m25s), a feature length film produced for foreign markets by the editing together of The Beginning and The Interrogation with an animated title sequence. Sporting an obvious NTSC-to-PAL conversion, this isn't the best looking extra on the set and even falls some way short of the episodes but is interesting nonetheless, not only as to how a film could be constructed out of two individual episodes but how The Champions was presented outside of the UK.
After Legend Of The Champions, there is an Episodic Trailer Gallery (17m28s), which features eighteen trailers with optional UK and US narration selectable from the DVD remote. There are also four Generic Trailers (15s,30s, 60s and 90s) and four promos for Channel 9 with Stuart Damon (26s), William Gaunt (24s), Alexandra Bastedo (26s) and all three cast members together (28s). There is also a Variant Title Sequence (1m05s), the Original Commercial Break Bumpers (13s) and a Merchandise Image Gallery (10m53s). This last section includes scans from the Joe 90 Comic Annual, which is also included on this last disc as a .pdf document that can be viewed on a PC or printed.
Network have a habit of releasing acceptable but very ordinary DVDs most of the time but occasionally, as they did with Space: 1999 and this, they really do themselves proud with a boxset that's quite remarkable. The transfers could be better but all credit to Network for including all thirty episodes in this nine-disc set and for a selection of bonus material that, by anyone's standards, is very impressive. Were they to match this work again, say on a re-release of The Prisoner, I certainly wouldn't be complaining and nor, I think, would other fans of British archive television.