Call me a holiday Grinch. I’m not the biggest fan of Christmas themed television with its formulaic story-lines and plot devices, obvious attempts to pull at your heart strings. The forced ‘special moments’ designed to get viewers in the ‘holiday spirit’ and spread, joy, and goodwill to all mankind. Of course, I have my secret sentimental favorites. But for the most part, it’s the less traditional Christmas episodes that resonate with me.
Case in point: Long before there were agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on network TV there was The Avengers, a kitschy action drama about the spy game in 1960’s Britain. John Steed worked for British Intelligence and with any number of partners in an 8 year span, time and again saved jolly old England from Russian spies, atom bombs threats, mad scientists, and a variety of ‘diabolical masterminds’. Little wonder then, the Christmas episode ‘Too Many Christmas Trees’ is anything but Christmassy.
Steed’s been having a reoccurring nightmare of being surrounded by Christmas trees, presents and a scary ho -ho -ho-ing Santa. Meanwhile, Mrs. Peel, his current sidekick gets invited by a friend to a Charles Dickens themed Christmas party hosted by a Mr. Brandon Storey, a collector of Dickens manuscripts. She takes Steed along but from the instant he enters the mansion both people and things seem extremely familiar, despite never having been there before. With events playing out exactly as in his dream, it isn’t long before Steed puts two and two together and figures out his feeling of deja-vu are no coincidence. He’s been the target of a group of telepathic spies testing the limits of their powers while trying to gain access to government secrets Steed has in his mind. Yes, we’re being asked to temporarily suspend disbelief, but so do typical holiday shows and given the choice I’d rather do it for a dastardly duo of murderous telepaths than for the ‘magic’ of Christmas and jolly ol’ St-Nick any day.
‘Too Many Christmas Trees’, originally airing in 1965 with no special effects and minimal violence, still holds up today and manages to entertain. There’s a definite creepiness factor to it, hard to ignore, and made it one of the most memorable episodes for me when I first watched episodes which reran on the A and E network in the nineties. The laughing Santa and strange mask in the intro, Steed and Mrs. Peel singing dark verses of an old English nursery rhyme (here comes a candle to light you to bed, here comes a chopper to chop off your head!) – even the fact that it’s in black and white is a little spooky. Admittedly it’s more suspenseful mystery than Christmas episode. No touching moments, seasons greetings or syrupy sweet ending. No spiritually uplifting message of hope. And while Christmas was indeed celebrated, it was done with a touch of telepathy, a nod to history and a dash of murder. Pure Avengers style.