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Posts Tagged ‘The New Avengers’

After well over a month of viral post-apocalyptic gloom, I find that I want to make it clear that not all genre TV from the 1970s was cut from the same depressing cloth. When I find myself in the mood for this sort of change of pace, more often than not I find myself reaching for an episode of either The Avengers or its bell-bottomed progeny The New Avengers, and so it proves this time too. The episode my gaze fell upon on this occasion was Sleeper, written (like most episodes of this show) by Brian Clemens.

A demonstration of a new knockout gas, S-95, is scheduled, and so a gathering of top scientific and intelligence boffins is in progress in London. Unfortunately, no sooner has one of these boffins arrived at London Heliport than he is bundled into a cupboard and beaten senseless with his own briefcase by this week’s villain, Brady (Keith Buckley). Brady goes on to observe the demonstration, along with Steed, Purdey, and Gambit, and they all (pay attention, this is a plot point) receive injections granting them temporary immunity to S-95.

One of the more notable revelations which Sleeper treats us to is the news that the British security services have sunk serious R&D money into – and there’s no other way of describing it – magic, because that’s what S-95 seems to be. It’s not a gas, because someone says it isn’t, being more a sort of cloud of magic dust. If you breathe in the magic dust you go to sleep for six hours, unless you’ve had the antidote of course. The dust doesn’t blow away or dissipate or anything like that; it remains just as potent (for, presumably, the six hours previously mentioned).

Oh, who am I kidding, it’s a preposterous plot device that works the way it does solely to enable the episode to function. Much the same is true of the way in which Brady manages not only to impersonate the boffin without anyone suspecting it, but also single-handedly steal a couple of cannisters of S-95 and a supply of the antidote, again without the alarm being raised. They should probably have spent less money on magic plot device secret weapons and more on padlocks and burglar alarms.

Anyway, Brady has assembled a rather suspect squad of ne’er-do-wells who have penetrated to the heart of London by the cunning ruse of pretending to be a coachload of tourists. Everyone on the coach is a bad guy, but they still go through the motions of listening to the guide’s spiel (the guide is a bad’un too), simply in order to preserve the surprise of their true identity for the viewer.

The plan, of course, is to dump a load of S-95 on central London just after dawn on a Sunday morning, putting the whole city to sleep and allowing Brady and his gang of ruffians to knock over every bank in the affected area. What they have not reckoned on is the fact that their operation has been infiltrated by an associate of Steed’s, not to mention that Steed, Purdey, and Gambit are still immune to the S-95 and will be up and about and able to throw a spanner in the slightly ridiculous works.

This is one of those episodes where it’s fairly clear that the main idea – the trio of protagonists contending with a much larger group of enemies in an effectively deserted London – came first, and the rest of the episode was written to facilitate it, no matter how absurd the necessary narrative gymnastics became. Most of the episode is a series of gently comic set-pieces as Steed and Gambit (who are paired up this week) and Purdey deal with various opposing parties.

The scenes with Steed and Gambit are fairly humdrum – the two of them exposit to each other a lot before deciding to go to the pub – but Purdey’s adventures are given an odd little twist by the fact she gets locked out of her flat and spends most of the episode in a fetching set of turquoise silk pyjamas. I first saw this episode early in 1991 on a late-night repeat (showing just before Mike Raven in Crucible of Terror, fact fans) and I have to say my teenaged self found many of Purdey’s scenes to have a subtle erotic charge to them (at one point she has to pretend to be a shop mannequin, and of course her pyjama bottoms start falling down). Nothing very much comes of this except a fairly absurd fight between Joanna Lumley and Prentis Hancock (ah, Prentis Hancock, one of the unsung heroes of 70s genre TV).

(Other before-they-were-famous members of Brady’s gang include David Schofield, who’s been in everything from An American Werewolf in London to a couple of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and Gavin Campbell, who was briefly an actor but these days is best known as a presenter of That’s Life and a celebrity marathon runner. One of the pleasures of watching these old TV shows again is spotting these incongruous faces in the minor roles.)

There are some quite well-mounted action sequences in the deserted city streets, especially a car chase with Purdey at the wheel of a commandeered mini, but on the whole it’s not nearly witty or entertaining enough to justify the sheer level of contrivance and preposterousness involved. Being knowingly silly is pretty much the sine qua non of Avengers and New Avengers episodes, but this one is a bit too silly and not nearly knowing enough. Still kind of memorable in that 70s New Avengers way, though.

 

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Well, with NaNo out of the way well ahead of the deadline (I believe I may have mentioned it), I find myself at a bit of a loose end, writing-wise. So, obviously, the logical thing to do is to write about an episode of The New Avengers, a British fantasy series from the mid 70s which these days obviously struggles to maintain any kind of online profile given the onslaught of material related to another ‘new Avengers’ project.

I say that The New Avengers is fantasy, but to be honest that’s more a matter of tone than anything else. Rather like its progenitor series, (doh!) The Avengers, it wanders back and forth over the line between credible espionage drama and borderline SF and fantasy, although in general the concepts are a bit less way-out (the one with the giant rat obviously excepted). This time around I thought I would write about Target!, generally considered to be one of the best episodes, which was written by Dennis Spooner and directed by John Hough.

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The main premise of Target! is the existence of an automated firing range populated by gun-toting androids, its function to provide a training facility for security agents – training being so much more realistic, after all, when the targets shoot back at you. It is essentially a very high-tech version of paintball, or so everybody thinks.

However, the range has been subverted by enemy agent Draker (Keith Barron), with the result that anyone running the android gauntlet usually winds up dropping dead hours or days later. Due to this delay, no-one has any idea what is causing the deaths of so many highly important operatives, which is naturally a source of concern to Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Gambit (Gareth Hunt). Purdey (Joanna Lumley), on the other hand, is a bit less worried, but that is mainly because she has some leave coming up. Once she’s completed her final competency check down at the firing range, anyway…

The majority of The New Avengers was written by either Spooner or series creator Brian Clemens, which may explain quite how formulaic many of the episodes are – but then again, wouldn’t the two of them have noticed quite how often they were repeating themselves? Most of the episodes feature one or other of a traitor working for Steed and company’s organisation, and a member of said organisation stumbling onto a nefarious scheme, getting himself mortally wounded, and then staggering off to Steed’s house to croak out just enough information to get the episode started before pegging out.

Both of these old favourites turn up in Target!, although perhaps this is a little forgivable given it was only the sixth episode into production. Also present is another classic Avengers plot beat, in the form of an eccentric character who’s there to provide an info-dump, in the course of which he gets murdered – in this case, an expert on life up the Amazon (don’t ask).

To be honest, the plot itself does not make a great deal of sense except in the most impressionistic way, with various threads left blowing in the breeze or not quite connecting up with each other. Your credulity will be somewhat stretched even if you accept the idea of the robot sharpshooters which are central to the storyline.

However, the episode works as well as it does simply because the idea of the robot gun-range is such a fun and interesting one. Outrageous though it is, some thought has gone into making it look and feel borderline-plausible: the range is disguised as a collection of buildings and streets, with fake graffiti and roadsigns, and a few ‘friendlies’ for test subjects to waste their ammunition on. (It also appears to give Spooner the opportunity for an in-joke about a previous job, as a police box is spectacularly detonated at one point – rumour suggests this is the actual TARDIS exterior from the Amicus Dalek movies.)

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We don’t get to see Steed take on the machine, unfortunately (Patrick Macnee takes a bit of a back seat in this particular episode), but plenty of other characters do, and Hough’s direction of these sequences is smartly done, particularly the finale, in which Gambit has to run the gauntlet, knowing full well his opponents are effectively using live ammunition.

One of Patrick Macnee’s regular observations about The New Avengers is that he shouldn’t have been in the series at all: it would have been much better with just Gambit and Purdey as the two leads. No-one but Gareth Hunt’s bank manager would agree with that, I suspect, but it is true that the scripts often struggle to find stuff for all three regulars to do, and more often than not it’s Gambit who comes across as a bit of a spare wheel.

However, Target! is constructed so it comes across as perfectly natural for Gambit to be the one saving the day in trigger-pumping style. When it comes to dialogue scenes and natural charisma, pairing Hunt with Macnee is like putting a cigarette lighter next to a blowtorch, but he always handles himself perfectly well in action sequences, especially ones as well-directed as those here.

Target! isn’t a really great piece of TV, but then The New Avengers isn’t a truly great series anyway: though it’s certainly a competent and fun one. But this is a solidly assembled, highly entertaining episode, with lots to enjoy going on, even if some of it is in the casting (sitcom favourite Barron is a surprisingly effective villain, while playing his sidekick is TV and film fantasy stalwart Deep Roy, making his screen debut). It’s been said that the only watchable sequence from the 1998 Avengers movie was based on this episode – which is, to be honest, too faint praise. This is the kind of thing nobody really does any more, which I think is rather a shame.

 

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Let us continue our consideration of the career of Peter Cushing with a look at two more guest appearances the great man made on British TV in the 1960s and 1970s. Both of these are in The Avengers, mainly because these are the DVDs I happen to have knocking about the garret (well, one of them is technically in The New Avengers, but let’s not quibble).

Modern audiences may just associate The Avengers with Joss Whedon, a load of Marvel characters, and ten-digit box office returns, but for those of us of a certain age and disposition, that title goes first and foremost to a very peculiar TV thriller series, which started in 1960 as a straightforward detective show before transforming into one of the most stylish and off-the-wall fantasy series ever made – not entirely unlike the Batman TV show of the same period, but with much better performances and a massively higher level of sophistication. Patrick Macnee plays Steed, an adventurer and agent of an unspecified government agency, whose remit is conveniently vague; in the show’s mid-60s heyday his partner is an amateur investigator named Mrs Emma Peel (played, of course, by Diana Rigg). One of the subtle brilliancies of this show is the inversion of the way you’d expect the leads to be characterised: Mrs Peel usually takes things very seriously, while the professional agent Steed appears to be doing this for fun.

Anyway, the episode under consideration is Return of the Cybernauts from 1967, written by Philip Levene and directed by Robert Day. As it opens, the case that Steed and Mrs Peel are supposedly working on is the disappearance of a number of top scientists, but, characteristically, they are not letting this get in the way of a properly refined social life and are in fact enjoying drinks at the house of their friend Paul Beresford (Cushing). Beresford, not to put too fine a point on it, is coming on to Mrs Peel like nobody’s business, which she seems to find quite flattering, even though he is close to being twice her age. Steed appears a bit nonplussed by it all.

The disappearance of another scientist drags the duo away, at which point it is revealed that Beresford is behind the kidnappings, using a hulking robotic proxy (one of the Cybernauts referred to in the title). Soon enough he sits all his abductees down and shows them a tape of the previous season’s episode The Cybernauts, particularly the bit where Steed and Mrs Peel are responsible for the villain’s death – a villain who was secretly, in fact, Beresford’s brother! Now he has assembled this collection of boffins to cook up a suitably diabolical revenge – ‘a rhapsody of suffering’ is what he’s in the market for. However, Steed and Emma are no fools and have already figured out that someone has reactivated the Cybernauts, and they’re closing in on the culprit – taking frequent breaks to enjoy whiskey, claret, and other fine things in life, naturally…

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Well, what follows is a well-directed collection of decent set-pieces strung together by some slightly dubious pretexts – The Avengers regularly makes big asks of its audience, and this episode is no exception. In addition to the idea that a seven foot steel robot in a fedora and sunglasses could wander around the Home Counties karate-chopping everything in its path without being noticed, the episode makes use of a wide variety of fantastical gadgets, from weapons that home in on a person’s ‘unique heartbeat’ to wristwatches that ‘paralyse the will’.

We are well across the border into science fantasy here, but despite what you may be thinking, the Cybernauts do not seem to me to be overtly ripping off the Cybermen of Doctor Who. For one thing, they look and behave quite differently, with the Cybernauts clearly being presented as totally mute robots. Most importantly, the Cybernauts beat the Cybermen to the screen by nearly a year. If anything, I’d say the influence was flowing the other way – not only did The Avengers and other filmed adventure series heavily influence the format of Doctor Who‘s seventh season, but the Autons, on their debut appearance in 1970, strikingly resemble the Cybernauts in a number of ways.

But I digress. This is a fairly atypical Avengers episode in all sorts of ways – this is a series which never really did recurring adversaries, and only rarely had stories specifically about the two leads being threatened. And, on the whole, it’s a fairly ‘straight’ story, with little of the quirkiness or humour you really expect from this show. Perhaps its this which makes some of the more dubious permutations of the plot a little difficult to swallow – and here I’m not even talking about the scene where Beresford has Mrs Peel in his clutches, her free will neutralised, and he proceeds to… help her off with her coat. Is the man not human? Hmm, I’m digressing again.

Nevertheless, it works as a piece of entertainment, not least because it’s Peter Cushing playing the bad guy. He gets some fairly choice dialogue to deliver – the ‘rhapsody of suffering’ line being just one example – but this never really impinges on the air of suave menace he effortlessly projects. This episode is about the villain more than most (he’s a nutcase, but an intelligent nutcase with a very specific agenda) and it’s easy to see why they recruited an actor of Cushing’s calibre for the part.

One gets the sense he was cast in The New Avengers simply because he was a famous film star, however: his episode, The Eagle’s Nest, was the series premiere and they presumably thought Cushing’s presence would help with the publicity. He gets the main guest role, but this story is mainly about establishing the characters, format, and tone.

Made in 1976, Patrick Macnee reprises his role as a slightly more avuncular Steed, while assisting him now are Joanna Lumley as ex-ballerina Purdey and Gareth Hunt as ex-mercenary Mike Gambit. Purdey isn’t really in Mrs Peel’s league, but Lumley makes the best of what she’s given, while Steed still appears to be an eccentric fop but is really a very hard man. Gambit, on the other hand, appears to be a very hard man but is really a bit of a gimp. Hey ho.

Many episodes of The New Avengers open with one of our heroes’ colleagues stumbling upon the evil plan of the villains, getting themselves mortally wounded, and then staggering off (usually to Steed’s house) to conk out after whispering a few cryptic words that will kick off the plot. The Eagle’s Nest doesn’t quite go down this route, but it’s a near thing.

We open with an Englishman being chased across a desolate Scottish landscape by a bunch of the locals: this is not Nigel Farage making another ill-advised trip to canvass north of the border, but an agent whose fishing trip has led to his discovering… aha, that would be telling. In a typical New Avengers gimmick, the bad guys’ weapons are fishing rods whose hooks are coated with jellyfish extract. It is quickly established that the local monks are baddies and the angling spy is soon toast.

However, an impostor passing himself off as the dead man turns up in London at a scientific meeting attended by the eminent scientist Doctor von Claus (Cushing, finally), who’s an expert on cryogenic suspension (not that they used terms like that in mainstream entertainment in 1976). Having resuscitated a frog to wild applause (those wacky scientists), von Claus is kidnapped by the impostor and dragged off to the remote Scottish island where the monks hold sway.

Sure enough, a succession of clues point Steed and his friends in that direction, so off they go – but why have the monks nabbed the doctor in the first place? Well, it transpires that in 1945 one of the last planes out of Berlin before the Russians took the city crashed upon the island, and it has been controlled by these fanatical Nazis and their offspring ever since (not that anyone looks particularly Aryan, if we’re honest). Also on the plane was – yes, you’ve guessed it! – Hitler, who’s been in a coma ever since, and the Nazis would quite like Peter Cushing to revive him just in time for his birthday party. What the plan after that is remains unclear: presumably the hope is that Hitler will lead an all-conquering army carrying fishing rods and jellyfish extract from this remote north Atlantic rock.

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We are well into the dubious realm of Nazi kitsch here – there’s a very funny scene where all the monks whip off their habits to reveal SS uniforms underneath – but, some obvious padding aside, the story hangs together pretty well. It’s clear from the start, though, that having three regulars in an Avengers episode is probably a mistake, as it’s quite difficult to split the story three ways. Gambit doesn’t really get much to do. Purdey, on the other hand, frogmans her way onto the island, reveals a very nice chiffon number under her wetsuit (complete with high-heeled boots), and then gets a couple of mildly kinky scenes where the fishhooks of the villains shred her top layer, forcing her to spend the rest of the episode in a low-cut green wool catsuit (and, to judge from some of the camera angles, not much else).

As I said, Peter Cushing does not perhaps get the material he deserves, as many of his scenes are simply just padding. However, as you might expect, he gives it everything he’s got – it’s so interesting to see how many of the same tics and mannerisms Cushing employs when playing a villain can be subtly tweaked to transform him into a very sympathetic character. Nevertheless, he’s not playing the hero or the villain, and so this episode is always fundamentally about other people. It is silly, it is in questionable taste, and it never quite gets the balance right between comic relief and drama: but then again, it is The New Avengers, so you’d be unwise to expect anything else.

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