The Champions: Craig Stirling, Sharron Macready, and Richard Barrett. The possessors of fantastic skills and qualities, both mental and physical. Powers bestowed upon them when their plane crashed in Tibet and they encountered the lost people of a hidden civilisation. Powers that are a secret known only to them. Powers that they are able to use to their best advantage as the champions of law, order, and justice. Craig, Sharron, and Richard; operators of the international agency of Nemesis.
Back in the Silver Age, super-hero fans didn’t get a lot of satisfaction from television. There were the Saturday-morning cartoons, because super-heroes were considered kid stuff. However, the prime-time hours were the province of adults, whom the network---and more important, the sponsors---presumed had no interest in comic books. So the outlook was bleak for a serious treatment of super-heroes.
Note, I said a “serious treatment”. The phenomenally popular Batman, debuting in January, 1966, was presented as a farce, mocking the usual comic-book conventions. The resulting “Batmania” undermined the following year’s attempt at a genuine super-hero drama, The Green Hornet. It didn’t help that William Dozier, producer of Batman, also provided his particular type of bombastic narration for The Green Hornet. Despite the show’s decent effort at playing the genre straight, The Green Hornet’s audience kept waiting for the same sort of irreverent humour and tuned out when it didn’t appear.
The Bat-craze burned out in 1968 and prime-time television’s brief age of super-heroes seemed to die with it. However, there was one last attempt at a serious drama involving characters with super-powers, and it was the best attempt at it for many years thereafter. Yet, it slipped completely beneath the radar.
How many of you remember “summer replacement” shows? (O.K., both of you can put your hands down, now.) For reasons mostly do to with paying residuals to the appearing performers, when variety shows went on hiatus in the summer, instead of airing them in repeats, new shows, intended to run just until September, were slipped into their time slots. In June, 1968, the British-produced The Champions debuted on NBC as the summer replacement for Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.
The big three U.S. networks loved British shows then. At least, they did ever since The Avengers (no, not that one from Marvel, either; I mean the one with Steed and Mrs. Peel) became a ratings-hit. Buying British programmes was cheaper for the networks than producing their own shows, so quite a few shows from across the pond aired here: Secret Agent, The Saint, The Prisoner. It was a good deal for the British producers, too. If they could sell a series to the American market, it meant immediate profit.
Even though thirty episodes of The Champions were in the can and would be seen by British audiences, NBC only needed to fill the three months between seasons of Laugh-In, so just ten Champions episodes were shown over here. That’s probably why you don’t remember it, even if you were around then to see it. And that’s a pity, because it was one of the most intelligently written dramas about heroes with powers ever seen on television.
The Champions was the brainchild of English scriptwriter Dennis Spooner. Spooner and producer Monty Berman wanted to deliver an adventure show with the twist of having the heroes possess abilities beyond those of mortal man, but they wanted to ground it with a healthy dosage of reality, to make it fantastic but plausible. As Spooner put it, his goal was “to make incredibility credible.”
“Everything [the Champions] do is within the bounds of possibility,” Spooner insisted. “They can't perform miracles because they are not super-humans; but they can do anything within the limits of human capabilities.
“Someone on earth possesses each quality that has been granted to them. Each field of endeavour has one champion---one man or woman who is better than anyone else in the world in his or her particular sphere. One person holds the record---for high-jumping, running, swimming, boxing, wrestling, racing, diving, and physical endurance of every kind, even flagpole-sitting. And there is one man who is better than any others in every other physical and mental sphere.
“The three characters in The Champions possess all these superlative qualities, but they can't do anything that some other human being hasn't achieved, somewhere, sometime.”
This was the hook for the series. Everything the heroes could do was remarkable, even wondrous, but not impossible.
The premise was established in the first episode, “The Beginning”. Craig Stirling and Richard Barrett and Sharron Macready are operatives for the international peace-keeping organisation known as Nemesis. This initial outing begins with a cold open, on a mission to steal plague specimens from a Chinese military laboratory before they can be used as a biological weapon. Stirling and Barrett are veteran agents, but it’s Sharron’s first field assignment. According to the dialogue, she volunteered for a field assignment following the death of her husband. It’s implied that Mr. Macready’s death was murder, which suggests Sharron has a stronger motivation than just putting painful memories behind her.
Though the trio accomplishes its mission professionally, mischance tips off the Red Chinese soldiers guarding the complex, and as the three Nemesis agents escape in a jet, enemy gunfire damages the aircraft badly. The plane crash-lands on a remote mountain in Tibet. They are found, barely alive, by the inhabitants of a lost city, who repair their injuries---and more.
When Stirling and Macready and Barrett awaken, they are back in the wreckage of their downed plane, completely healed and feeling better than they ever have in their lives. Piecing together vague, dream-like memories, they suspect the existence of the hidden city. Stirling and Macready are determined to complete their mission; however, Barrett insists on staying behind and learning the secret of their remarkable recoveries.
Eventually, the high priest of the hidden city presents himself to the determined Barrett. He relates how the people of his city found the three stricken agents and not only healed them, but improved them.
“Sometimes, a person is born with a gift,” the holy man explains. “These gifts can come in many fields. You and your friends are now able to receive all of them.”
For Barrett and the other two, their physical strength has been enhanced, the efficiency of their minds and senses transformed, to the peak of human capability. However, the priest cautions, their newfound talents will not come to them automatically; they must be learnt, as a child must learn how to walk. Moreover, the three agents are not infallible and certainly not immortal.
Barrett rejoins Stirling and Macready in time to help them overcome a squad of Chinese soldiers that has tracked them down. The Nemesis operatives are nearly as amazed as the enemy soldiers at the feats they are now able to perform. After Barrett explains what has happened to them, the three agree to keep their newfound abilities a secret, to protect the secret of the lost city.
Over the course of the series, the three main characters were fleshed out. Craig Stirling, an American, played by Stuart Damon, was the most traditional television hero. Tall, good-looking, and calmly authoritative, Stirling, a former U.S. Air Force pilot, relied a great deal on instinct and gut hunches. He was the Champion most likely to take direct action.
Though clearly in the traditional hero mould, his character didn’t include all the stereotypes. While it wasn't unusual to see Craig squiring a young lovely around town, he wasn't a skirt-chaser, nor did the female guest stars invariably fall in love (or bed) with him in every episode, as always seemed to happen to Joe Mannix and Mike Hammer.
In order to make the show appealing to the oh-so-profitable American market, Damon got top billing in the credits and, accordingly, Craig Stirling was played up as “first among equals” to his fellow Nemesis colleagues. Most of the action centred on him, at least, in the early episodes.
That gave William Gaunt quite a hurdle to clear, in portraying British agent Richard Barrett. Physically, he was not as eye-catching or imposing as Damon---in fact, he looked as non-descript as a salesman or an accountant. But there was something appealing about his performance that grew over the series’ run.
Barrett’s background was in intelligence work, particularly in code-breaking, and that carried over into his work as a field agent. He was usually the one with a calculated plan, and he was more devious than his two partners, something hinted at by his dry wit and sarcasm.
He was an intellectual with a taste for classical music, fine wines, and contemporary art. Despite his button-down appearance, though, Richard was as athletic and capable of action as Craig, even before the priests in Tibet got their hands on him.
And that brings us to the other Britisher on the team, Sharron Macready, M.D. As depicted by Alexandra Bastedo, Sharron was just plain fun to watch. She was more than just window dressing for the two male heroes. Yes, many of the scripts made use of her medical knowledge, but that wasn't a bone tossed to make her useful. She was as sharp and alert and as capable of taking point on a case as Stirling or Barrett, all the while maintaining a refined sophistication that evoked Grace Kelly.
Most enjoyable was the way the beautiful and stylish Doctor Macready threw herself into a fight. No typical standing-in-the-corner-and-looking-on-fearfully for her when things got violent. She waded right into it. And not with any martial-arts aplomb like Emma Peel; Sharron was a rough-and-tumble fighter. She punched, kicked, hit, and wasn't afraid of being hit.
The writers handled the interaction of the three leads masterfully. They talk as seasoned partners and friends would talk, with easy confidence and plenty of private jokes and light-hearted barbs. There is a natural use of overlapping dialogue and aside expressions that practically force more than one viewing of an episode to catch it all. Their teamwork is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the series.
Another snare the writers wisely avoided was building a romantic relationship between Sharron and either of her male partners. There's an occasional playful remark, but it's never meant or taken as innuendo. Her relationship with Craig and Richard is one of genuine friendship.
The only other regular character in the show was the head of Nemesis, Commander Tremayne, played by Anthony Nicholls. As written, the character of Tremayne avoids both of the most common archetypes for television bosses. Tremayne is neither warm and avuncular, nor petty and officious. Instead, the man’s utterly professional (so professional, in fact, that he lives at Nemesis headquarters, in an apartment next to his office). He’s in charge, but doesn’t feel the need to browbeat the fact. Under such a middle-of-the-road approach, another actor might have faded away into the background, but Nicholls manages to invest the appropriate gravitas in Tremayne.
Tremayne also serves as the viewer’s most visible reminder that Stirling and Barrett and Macready mean to keep their paranormal abilities a secret. Almost every closing scene involves Tremayne pointing out something that his three top agents have glossed over in their report (an event when their powers come into play). Their response is usually something vague, along the lines of the lame excuses George Reeves’s Clark Kent would hand to a suspicious Lois Lane. At the start of the series, Tremayne is genuinely curious, but over the course of the show, there develops a subtle feeling that it has become a cat-and-mouse game between him and his top agents. One isn’t sure if the head of Nemesis has figured out the truth or not, but it’s clear that he knows there’s something the three of them are holding back.
Speaking of Nemesis, it is never explained just what status the organisation held. The headquarters is based in Geneva, Switzerland, implying that it is attached to the United Nations, but that is never stated with certainty. What we do know is that Nemesis deals with problems brought to it by the member nations of NATO. In dealing with representatives of those countries, Tremayne frequently refers to Nemesis’ freedom to act independently, suggesting it might be a private concern. This possibility is reїnforced in the episode “The Experiment”, when it is pointed out that the international intelligence community doesn’t approve of Nemesis.
You may have noticed that I haven’t devoted much space to talking about the Champions’ super-powers. That’s pretty much the same approach that Spooner and Berman took with the show. Every episode, except the first, includes a post-title vignette unrelated to the main plot. These brief scenes are intended to highlight the agents’ remarkable abilities; they can sometimes be routine or even dramatic, but usually are humorous, depicting one of the Champions messing with somebody’s head. A man throws down the London Times crossword in frustration; Barrett picks it up and finishes it in five minutes. Two men are unable to push a blocked car out of its parking space; they watch amazed as Sharron pulls it free with one hand. That sort of thing. These are accompanied by a brief voice-over bringing the audience up to speed.
This is the most emphasis the Champions’ super-powers receive in many episodes. Their main abilities are exceptional strength and endurance, split-second reflexes, enhanced vision and hearing, and some sort of vague telepathic link between them. They cannot read each others’ (or anyone else’s) minds, but they get sort of a psychic “alert” when one of them suddenly comes under stress. This ability in particular took time to develop over the run. These flashes of intuition didn’t happen in every instance, nor did they necessarily understand them when they occurred.
Most television programmes about super-powered heroes make sure there's a great deal of fanfare whenever they use them. After all, the thinking goes, that's the big draw. But Spooner and Berman chose to deliberately underplay them in their stars' adventures. Whenever one of the Champions employed an enhanced ability, there were no slow-motion tricks, no signature sound effects, no dramatic musical cues. Their remarkable feats were presented as matter-of-factly as one of the cops on Law & Order drawing his gun. However, a sort of melodic chime was used whenever the heroes' psychic link was called into play, since there was no visible way to convey that to the viewers.
The resulting effect was that The Champions wasn’t so much a show about super-powered agents as it was a show about agents who happened to have super-powers. They tackled their missions using standard espionage and investigation techniques, with their special abilities figuring in only as a bonus. In fact, watch enough episodes and you come away feeling that they could have accomplished their assignments even if they hadn’t possessed their enhanced abilities.
In saying that, don’t get the idea that there was a “Godzilla versus Bambi” aspect to the show. Our Heroes got into plenty of trouble. All it took was a bad guy exceptionally clever enough. And not infrequently, the agents, especially Stirling, were a mite too overconfident and found the boom lowered on them by a resourceful opponent.
But even at their best, Barrett and Macready and Stirling occasionally ran up against something in which having super-powers didn’t give them the edge. In “The Experiment”, an enemy power has discovered the secret of the Champions’ paranormal abilities (probably from all those consecutive holes-in-one and other showing off they do in the opening vignettes) and has found a way to bestow its own agents with the same abilities. In the inevitable confrontation, the Nemesis operatives have to rely on their wits, since they can’t overpower their foes.
In “Autokill”, an enemy has captured Barrett and brainwashed him to kill Craig, a common plot in this type of series. The climactic battle between Barrett and Stirling is worth sitting through the fairly routine build-up. It is remarkable in its violence and brutality. (For you James Bond fans, think of the fight between Bond and Red Grant in From Russia with Love, and you’ve got the idea.) Stirling survives only because Sharron throws herself into the fray (and takes a few lumps of her own), holding Richard long enough for Craig to punch him senseless. When Barrett recovers in the hospital, his mind has returned to normal, but with no memory of what happened. He spots the fresh bruises on Stirling’s face.
“What have you done to yourself?” Richard asks.
“I had a lesson in equality,” says Craig.
Not that The Champions was without flaws. While the scripted interplay between the leads was always top-notch, the plots themselves often relied upon the usual Cold War tropes. Midway through the series, the scripts definitely hit the doldrums, with half-formed ideas or repeats of previous situations.
The special effects were nothing to brag about, either. Styrofoam boulders would bounce across the set and the rear-projection shots were obviously done on the cheap. (In the opening credits, the three leads are “blue-screened” against footage of Geneva’s famous Jet d’Eau which was actually taken by Monty Berman’s home movie camera while he was on vacation there.) Fortunately, the performances of Damon, Gaunt, and Bastedo are so good, you don’t notice, unless you’re specifically looking for it; then it’s obvious.
The most notable episode of the series illustrated one of the harsh realities of secretly possessing super-powers. “The Interrogation” takes place after Stirling has returned from a successful mission in Hong Kong and has filed his report. Through means unrevealed until the end, he is rendered unconscious. He wakes in a prison cell, subjected to questioning by an unknown interrogator. The interrogator wants information about Craig’s last mission in Hong Kong. Craig is confused; he doesn’t know why he is there, or who the man is.
The questioning grows more and more intense. The interrogator shifts tactics, alternating between amiability and menace, playing a sort of one-man "good cop/bad cop". But Stirling clings to his wits, refusing to divulge any information, despite the drugs, the physical duress, or attempts to trick him with falsified tapes of his own “confession”. His super-senses are little help to him here.
When the interrogator reveals that he already knows the details of the Hong Kong mission, it dawns on Craig that what they---whoever “they” are---want to know is how he accomplished it so handily. His captors want to know how he achieves such an excellent record of successful cases.
The relentless cross-examination grinds Stirling down to raw nerves. Almost at his breaking point, he manages to escape his cell, only to discover that he has been in Nemesis headquarters all along. He confronts Tremayne, who admits to authorising the inquisition, after Nemesis internal security reviewed Craig’s Hong Kong report with concern. An angry Stirling asks what was wrong with his report.
“There was nothing wrong with it,” replies the interrogator. “In fact, it was too good to be believed. Perhaps Nemesis wasn’t your only employer, but even a double agent doesn’t get the results you get.”
And not just the Hong Kong case, but in the reports of his other cases, too. Accounts of successful missions, but vague on certain developments (which were accomplished by using his powers). It’s those gaps that have the man from internal security concerned.
Here, in a tour de force episode, Spooner examined the consequences of what would happen if, because of their hidden powers, dedicated agents were too good at their jobs. It was a fresh and realistic approach then, and it would be to-day.
The paradigm has shifted, as well. Stirling is outraged at Tremayne, who personally regretted the interrogation, but professionally, was forced to approve it. Privately, Craig confronts Richard, bitter over the fact that he and Sharron, unwilling to risk exposing their secret, did nothing to intervene. The trust between Stirling, Barrett, and Macready has been broken, and the agents are left wondering if a cloud of suspicion still hangs over them.
“The Interrogation” was the last episode filmed and was intended to be the season finale. Spooner’s idea was to introduce tension between the four regular characters which would carry through to the show’s second season. But there would be no second season, and for some reason, the episode aired mid-way through the run, instead of the end.
Too bad. It was a hell of a send-off.
I had never heard of The Champions before, Commander.
Even despite the fact that here in Australia, we probably got to see a lot more of British TV shows than you Americans, it's probably not that surprising I was oblivious to it, as I was just short of eight years-old when it premiered, and I am doubtful that even if it was shown Down Under at the time, or soon after (which it probably was), it ever got repeated showings. Being a one season show wouldn't help.