Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Champions (TV show)

Lew Grade and the British television company ITC (Independent Television Commission) produced some of the greatest cult spy TV shows in the 60s and 70s. From massive 60s hits like Secret Agent Man to The Saint, or cult favorites like The Prisoner or The Persuaders, ITC made a name exporting strange television shows to America that are today looked upon as being classics. One show, however, that stood apart from the others thematically and spiritually was The Champions. The Champions was a flop in America when released in 1968, dumped in mid-season, and was never to be rerun again, yet the show was a massive hit in 60 other countries. Unlike some of the other ITC shows of that era, The Champions had no recognizable star power to appeal to American audiences, and the premise of the show was perhaps too inaccessible. There were only 30 shows produced, for it only lasted one season; still, after forty years, the show has amassed a cult following that increases every year.

The Champions was about three secret agents working for Nemesis: a Geneva-based, top-secret international agency dedicated to law, order, and justice. These agents usually fought villains that were would-be world conquerors, traitorous scientists or some kind of Fascist/ Nazi revivalists. The twist of the show was that these three agents had super powers, including: heightened senses, improved strength or memory, ESP, and telepathy. They were like Mod superheroes with powers that only the three of them knew about. The agents’ names were Craig Sterling, Richard Barrett, and Sharon Macready, and they took their orders from Commander W.L. Tremayne. There was nothing episodically chronological about the show outside of the pilot episode that explains their origin; each episode’s storyline stood on its own.

The Champions was conceived by producer Monty Berman and writer Dennis Spooner who decided to mix the spy genre with science fiction and added a dash of Tibetan philosophy to spice things up a bit. The production value of the show echoed other ITC shows of the time, with exterior shots from around Europe and interior shots in England. The use of rear projection and stock footage was also commonly found in the show. Limited by a lower budget than most typical American shows at the time, The Champions managed to carry on with a certain charm despite its use of paper-mache props and phony model planes. The show’s British cult film directors like Roy Ward Baker, Cyril Frankel and Robert Asher always managed to inject a touch of the bizarre into each episode, creating memorable moments throughout the series.

The main actors of the show were: Stuart Damon as Craig, William Gaunt as Richard, and Alexandra Bastedo as Sharon. Stuart Damon was the tall and athletic leader of the group, while William Gaunt was the brains and the conversationalist. The gorgeous Alexandra Bastedo was the obvious dash of glamour and sex appeal that the show needed, and she is a primary reason why the show has such a following. Alexandra Bastedo brought a certain style to the proceedings, and the episodes that have little of her tend to be the weaker ones. At times the acting can feel a little stiff or stilted, but it is in keeping with the premise of the show. These three agents, with their super human powers, have an almost alien quality that sets them apart from normal human beings, and one can sense them internally analyzing their newly found powers with trance-like movements. Though none of the actors went on to too much fame, Stuart Damon did manage to carve out a thirty-year career as an actor on General Hospital.

The first episode of The Champions is called “The Beginning” and explores the origins of the agents’ super powers. The three agents are returning from a mission near the Chinese/ Tibetan border when their plane crash-lands in the Himalayas. They are rescued from death by the mysterious inhabitants of a forgotten civilization, who treat them with a kind of medical care that results in their special powers. Under surreal psychedelic lights and a soundtrack made up of the ringing of monastic bells and the ethereal tremor of a Theremin, the agents undergo a spiritual surgery that awakens strength, telepathy, and memory. (This soundtrack will occasionally reappear in later episodes whenever the agents access their telepathic abilities.) An elderly lama explains the powers to Richard, and Richard promises to keep the secret between the three of them. The episode ends with the three agents battling against the Red Chinese army that shot their plane down. Though the first episode is more concerned with the origins of “The Champions” than the actual mission at hand, it sets up the premise of the series and foreshadows the way in which the agents will extricate themselves from future quagmires.

The Champions’ mixture of comic book and spiritual influences compliments its 1960’s aesthetics. Although this show is inspired by comic book super hero mythology, it also breaks from these conventions by not presenting the heroes in colorful disguises with capes and masks. As a matter of fact, these agents are constantly in “Clark Kent mode” without ever changing into Superman. Their powers are always hidden, and they must carry themselves as ordinary people; their Commander doesn’t even know the existence of their powers (or if he does, he specifically turns a blind eye because they get the job done). With its kitsch interiors, small gadgets, sharp suits and espionage plots, this show is really more at home with its spy contemporaries than its comic book roots.

Though the show is relatively obscure in America, the recent DVD release of the series has increased its popularity. Because of its comic book roots, spiritual philosophy, and fashionable aesthetic, The Champions sets itself apart from other 60s spy TV shows. With newer TV shows like Heroes or films like The Watchmen, challenging comic book conventions has become more and more popular. Writers and producers have taken paper-thin characters and gone much deeper with their psychology and emotions, asking what it means to be a hero with special powers. Not only is The Champions a time capsule on popular, counter and spiritual cultures of the 1960s, but it has also proven to be a forerunner in the character development of modern comic book heroes.

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