Sunday, 27 September 2020

The Avengers - The Cybernauts Trilogy

Cool As Thwack!

The Avengers - The Cybernauts Trilogy
Airdates: 16th October 1965,
30 September 1967 & 2nd November 1976
Network - Zone 2 Blu Ray

Warning: Some spoilerage here.

When Network released this Blu Ray set a couple of years ago, I was hoping it would lead to a proper Blu Ray restoration of all the surviving episodes of various series of The Avengers in one massive boxed edition. Alas, that hasn’t happened yet but I’ve finally got around to watching this marvelous little mini set and, I have to say, they’ve done such a good job with these that they really should get onto doing a full restoration sometime soon (I see StudioCanal have got Blu Ray sets out for just three individual seasons but... that’s not enough and my respect for that specific company and their rights to release things in various territories and therefore blocking other labels has been steadily going downhill over the last few years).

The Avengers started in 1961 as a replacement show for Police Surgeon,  for the star of that series, Ian Hendry. This bizarre arm of the British Secret Service had Henry assisted in most episodes by a character called John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee. However, Hendry left the show towards the end of the first series which left Steed as the main character and he would continue on in that role in six more series of that show from 1961 - 1969, followed by the reincarnation of the show with two more series as The New Avengers from 1976 - 1977. During that time he had various assistants, all known over here in the UK as ‘Avengers girls’ (excepting in one obvious case) and they were Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, Diana Rigg as Emma Peel (played by Uma Thurman in a later movie adaptation), Linda Thorson as Tara King and, for The New Avengers, the duo of Joanna Lumley as Purdey and Gareth Hunt as Mike Gambit. It’s of some interest to note that three of the four Avengers girls, with the exception of Linda Thorson, were also Bond girls. Diana Rigg and Joanna Lumley even starred in the same Bond film, my favourite one, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (reviewed here) and, of course, Patrick Macnee would also have a large role in A View To A Kill (reviewed here). Alas, the vast majority of the Honor Blackman episodes are lost to history but I do remember seeing her in these (and catching all these old episodes) when they were repeated in the early 1970s on British television.

This Network release picks on the three episodes out of the entire run which have what is, for three episodes spaced apart over the course of 11 years, a surprising amount of connective tissue, not least of which is the main instrument of destruction of the main bad guy (who is different in each episode), the Cybernauts of the titles. The set also allows us to see three different periods of Avengers history too, in that the way those episodes fall we have one of the black and white Diana Rigg era episodes, followed by one of the colour Diana Rigg era episodes and then, finally, an episode from The New Avengers.

The Cybernauts are a lovely creation, actually, and you can see why they were reused a couple more times throughout the show’s history. In a pre-titles sequence in the first of these, simply called The Cybernauts, we meet the antagonist robots who really never change much over the course of the stories which feature them. They have no emotion or real reasoning, they just home in on anyone who happens to be carrying a certain homing pen (in the first one, this plot mechanism is changed for the next two), can bash their way through walls with their very distinctive ‘woosh... thwack’ karate chop sound and can kill or stun a person with one blow. After we first see them in action, we are presented with the title sequence of the time, which was static shots made into a montage (somewhat like a slow flickerbook) of Steed and Mrs. Peel striking poses to Laurie Johnson’s classic music.

We then get to the main plot and have a wheelchair bound cybernetic scientist, Dr. Armstrong, played by Michael Gough (who you may remember from a number of horror movies but who you might best remember these days as Alfred The Butler in the two Tim Burton Batman movies) and his assistant Benson, played by Frederick Jaeger. These two are murdering the ‘competition’ and are going to create a technological dystopia with their suspiciously scientific ways. Enter Steed and Mrs. Peel who eventually work out what’s going wrong and manage to get the two active Cybernauts to attack each other... Dr. Armstrong getting in the way at the wrong time and getting killed by them himself.

The next story, The Return Of The Cybernauts, sees a somewhat familiar opening scene as the previous episode to feature them two years prior. We also get, of course, that wonderful opening title sequence from this era with the beautiful, musical pre-amble to the main theme as Mrs. Peel uncorks Steed’s champagne bottle with a pistol shot. Wonderful stuff. This is pretty much the same kind of thing but it’s revenge that drives the story beats. Benson, who seems to have gone bizarrely unaccounted for in the last episode, is now assisting Dr. Armstrong’s surviving brother, played here by the wonderful Peter Cushing. They both want to kill Steed and Mrs. Peel and they once more use the Cybernauts in a very strange way... to kidnap scientists to devise a terrible poetic justice for the death of Armstrong. Lots of Dutch angles in this one but, even though the show once again features those killer Cybernauts with their deadly wooshing and thwacking... these episodes seem somewhat atypical for The Avengers as I remember them... they’re not nearly as surreal as they sometimes got, for sure.

The third story, The Last Of The Cybernauts?? (accept no substitutes on the IMDB, it’s definitely got a double question mark in the title) from The New Avengers has a slightly different plot variation in that a dastardly double agent is almost killed and left in a fiery inferno by the show’s three heroes. One year later, he uses the man who made the original cybernauts for Dr. Armstrong all those years ago (a character who was never mentioned in the previous episodes, alas) and uses them in a plot to avenge himself on Steed, Purdey and Gambit, who kind of instigated the car chase that led to him being disfigured and in a wheel chair. By the end of the show, though, he can walk again as he augments himself and turns into a human Cybernaut, only to fall at the first hurdle of his revenge plot. We also have, of course, The New Avengers title sequence with Laurie Johnson’s new theme which is steadily rooted in the base line phrase of the original music.

So, three great episodes which, I have to say, look crisper than I've ever seen anything like them looking before. Network have done an absolutely wonderful job here and seeing unexpected guest stars such as Burt Kwouk and John Hollis popping up in minor roles in an episode here and there is almost the icing on the cake but... not quite. Because there’s more...

My favourite part of  this disc is the option to watch these episodes with ‘the vintage experience’ switched on. Basically, Network have gone out of their way to restore vintage ads which would have been showing during the commercial breaks contemporary to each episode (seriously, the restoration on the ads is as good as on the episodes themselves) and although I tend to hate advertisements on principle, it’s kind of nice seeing adverts and hearing jingles from when you were a child which you had forgotten about over the years. That also means, of course, that you get the ‘bumper’ titles and music to separate the ads fro the show... which is also a very welcome addition.

If you’re interested, I noted down all the ads in the order they appear and they are as follows: Birds Eye Beef Burgers, ESSO Extra, Tempo Frozen Garden Peas, a Polo advert which is quite unintentionally sexual and therefore very funny (what with various talking heads going on about how much they enjoy sucking them), Birds Eye Fish Fingers, Benson And Hedges cigarettes (I’d forgotten how televisions and cinemas were full of what are now illegal tobacco adverts back in the day), Kellog’s Corn Flakes, Mr. Kipling's exceedingly good cakes, Martini, a different Birds Eye Beef Burgers ad, Gale’s Choc-Nut Spread, Gillette razor blades, After Eight chocolate mints, Biological Radiant (for a purer white), the ESSO Tiger ad, Terry Wogan bestowing the virtues of Bovril cubes, KiteKat cat food, Reliant Robin, John Le Mesurier not saying much of anything to sell Castella Court Cigars, Orson Welles telling us about Domecq Sherry, Diana Rigg travelling by British Airways, Ready Brek (central heating for kids), Castrol GTX and Hai Karate aftershave (which I was just getting into for a couple of years before it retreated from the market place).

And that’s that for The Avengers - The Cybernauts Trilogy. Three mostly wonderful episodes (the dialogue isn’t great in The New Avengers episode, to be fair but... the chemistry between the actors is phenomenal) brought to us by Network and, seriously, if they’re reading this, they really need to get cracking on giving the full series a shot at Blu Ray box set heaven, before the horrible world of streaming tries to take over the marketplace. Can’t do much more than recommend this trilogy heavily for people who like this period of British espionage television. It’s a wonderful thing and you should grab it before it goes.

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