October 19, 1990 at 04:00 AM EDT

Mystery! launches its 11th season with a shiveringly good effort that just happens to star the series’ host, Diana Rigg. She plays the mother in Mother Love, and there’s no mystery in this Mystery!: The actress plays an obsessed Englishwoman who demands such loyalty from family and friends that she kills those she feels have betrayed her. Rigg is Helena, a middle-age woman deeply embittered over the failure of her marriage to a famous symphony conductor, played by David McCallum (that’s right: Illya Kuryakin in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.). Helena has raised their only son, Kit (James Wilby), with a fierce, smothering love and has tried to make sure that her precious ”Kitty,” now a grown-up barrister, has no contact with McCallum or McCallum’s new wife and children.

But it turns out that Kit has been seeing his father regularly over the years. When Helena discovers this, she murders the family friend who reunited Kit with his dad, then murders dad’s current wife, and…well, that’s giving enough away.

In a role that could have been foolish and unbelievable, Rigg is scary and spectacular. She isn’t afraid to show us that she’s no longer the drop-dead ’60s spy-vixen Emma Peel (you can see her slithering around in leather jumpsuits in the Avengers reruns that the Arts & Entertainment network is now showing). In Mother Love, Rigg pulls back her hair to let us see the deep wrinkles around her eyes — these creases symbolize Helena’s life of worry and self-pity. Rigg is still beautiful, but she uses her aging beauty to fill in her character; smiling grimly and speaking in a cheery but firm tone, she comes to resemble a satanic version of Julie Andrews.

Things get wilder and campier as Mother Love proceeds. There’s a miraculous-coma-recovery scene complete with a doctor muttering, ”This is remarkable!” and a moment when Rigg makes the inevitable pronouncement ”I’ve given you life, and now I’ll take it away!” But this three-part Mystery!, directed by Simon Langton, never spins out of control. One of the year’s best dramas is also the most pleasingly creepy. A-

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