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The New Avengers 1.9 – Faces

Okay, so we had Roy Marsden last time, Edward Petherbridge this time, and Patrick Malahide next time. If you were a fan of the detective shows that made their way to PBS’s Mystery! anthology about a decade later, you can call that a hat trick: Commander Dalgliesh, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Chief Inspector Alleyn. Reckon John Thaw was a bit busy in 1976 to appear, but it’s a shame they couldn’t find parts for some other future ’80s teevee detectives like Jeremy Brett or James Warwick in this run!

Anyway, “Faces” is incredibly fun, but it’s very, very TV-stupid. It’s another doubles story, this time co-written by Brian Clemens and Dennis Spooner, and everybody gets to play other characters. It doesn’t do nearly enough with its neat premise, however. We learn this time that one of Steed’s Ministry superiors, played by Richard Leech, was killed by a lookalike who stepped into his shoes and built himself into a secrets broker. This happened five years previously. This show’s diabolical mastermind created that position for himself in 1971. They could have ran with that premise and built a much more interesting story than anything with doubles. There’s also a very rare onscreen confirmation of the class difference between Steed and Gambit, something this show never really addressed much.

Certainly the scene where Gareth Hunt and Joanna Lumley are – wait for it – playing Gambit and Purdey pretending to be Walter and Lolita pretending to be Gambit and Purdey while each thinks that the other is an imposter is hilariously entertaining. Lolita is really funny as well, knowwharrImean? And it’s always nice to see the awesome Petherbridge at work, and I love how his character murders people with a bow and arrow. But it’s dragged down by too many action TV cliches, like all of the doubles showing up to kill their targets while dressed identically, and Steed losing his oldest and best friend like he hasn’t lost his two oldest and best friends already. I’m not sure this oldest and best friend will be the last, either.

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The New Avengers 1.8 – The Tale of the Big Why

Proof that times have changed for the Avengers: tonight’s episode is a treasure hunt story, with our heroes competing against two villains to track down a Macguffin that’s worth a lot to somebody. But these villains are just so characterless. They’re resourceful, violent, unpleasant, but they’re so disagreeably anonymous. They’re certainly no Street and Green. They’re not even the gentlemen chappies from “The Rotters.” They’re just seventies thugs.

I didn’t care for them, but “The Tale of the Big Why,” written by Brian Clemens and directed by Robert Fuest, is otherwise a pretty good chase story. There are several interested parties whose paths intersect with the Macguffin – one of them is played by Roy Marsden – and lots of great location filming. I loved Fuest’s decision to show the passing of time by letting the camera land on a glass of beer as different characters drive past a village pub. There’s also a hostage exchange which goes terribly wrong for the outclassed bad guys and is enormously fun.

Our son was rather less pleased than me. There are a few “back to square one” moments in the story, which just left him confused. Was this show over or not? By the time they revealed what the Macguffin is and why it’s important, the law of conservation of TV speaking parts has told the audience whose career is going to be ended by it. (Hint: surprisingly, it isn’t Geoffrey Toone, who’s playing some minister or other. He sensibly stays back at Whitehall, where the finger of suspicion stops pointing.) I suppose that’s why they quickly wrapped up the plot along with a last bit of violence in the final ninety seconds, which didn’t help an overtired kid up a little past his bedtime finally understand what all the fuss was about.

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The New Avengers 1.7 – To Catch a Rat

A couple of real blasts from the past in tonight’s episode of The New Avengers. This one, famously, features the return of actor Ian Hendry, who had been the original star of the program back in 1961. Hendry isn’t playing his original character, Dr. Keel, but instead is playing an old sleeper spy who’s come in from the cold to finish a score with some old adversaries, one of whom is played by Barry Jackson, who had betrayed him in East Germany. The other person returning to the show after fifteen years is writer Terence Feely, who had last contributed scripts back when Hendry was playing Dr. Keel in the original season!

This is just me moaning, but there’s a part of me that sees a missed opportunity here. As great as it is to see Ian Hendry, who was an excellent actor, I kind of wish that they’d cast somebody who played a spy in some sixties show – Edward Woodward or Patrick McGoohan – as Gunner in this story, and asked Hendry to come back in a different story as Dr. Keel. Hendry and Patrick Macnee barely even get any screen time together, just one scene right at the end, with Hendry’s character losing consciousness and hardly in any shape to banter.

Despite the moan, this one’s a really entertaining traditional spy thriller, with no fantastic elements at all, and I was pleased that it kept our son completely hooked. He was playing really close attention and enjoyed this one a lot. Sure, his favorite scene was Purdey finding a weird and wonderful distraction to get out of a potentially embarrassing situation with two church ladies arranging flowers, but he enjoyed the whole show.

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The New Avengers 1.6 – Target!

If you’re as much a fan of familiar actors from the seventies as I am, then Dennis Spooner’s “Target!” is an absolute pleasure. You’ve got Keith Barron and Deep Roy as the villains, and Frederick Jaeger, John Paul, and Bruce Purchase in supporting roles. There’s a hint of the old Avengers spirit at play when Deep Roy disguises himself as a little kid on a tricycle, hiding a lethal hypodermic behind a bunch of balloons.

Our kid doesn’t care about actors, but there was plenty for him to enjoy in this one. The diabolical masterminds this week have rigged a shooting gallery survival course with darts filled with poisonous curare. Since The Avengers is very rarely about gunplay, or kill-or-be-killed shootouts, this is a pretty atypical story, not least in the sound department. It takes our heroes an eternity to figure out the link between all these apparently random agents, but the visuals of the survival course make for a hugely fun story to watch, and our son was on the edge of his seat.

My favorite moments were when Gambit kills two of the bad guys. He murders their inside man entirely by accident, thinking he’s just playing a cruel prank, but Deep Roy later gets one of the all-time great Avengers death scenes, and he totally had it coming.

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The New Avengers 1.5 – Cat Amongst the Pigeons

I’ve always thought it was interesting that writer Dennis Spooner only contributed one episode to the original run of The Avengers, probably because he was extremely busy writing for every other action-adventure program on British television in the late sixties and the man had to sleep sometime. But by 1976, he had enough time available to write several installments of The New Avengers. John Hough directed this one and he crams in more visual references to Hitchcock than any other hour I can think of. But everybody’s on board with this creepy little homage; the script even references that bit in The Birds where the chimney provides an unexpected hole in the defenses.

And talking of creepy, I don’t think I’ll be forgetting Vladek Sheybal’s downright twisted performance in this story anytime soon. Zarcardi is not like the typical grandiose and talkative villains that the Avengers face. He’s an isolated loner with an almost supernatural control of birds. (Well, there’s an explanation, but “any sufficiently advanced technology” and all that.) Familiar faces Peter Copley and Kevin Stoney are also here for a scene apiece, and an actor named Matthew Long has a very unusual role as an agent from another department who has a very antagonistic dislike of Steed’s blank check to do what he likes.

It’s all done with enough intensity to have kept our son worried. He really got into the spirit of things and curled up next to his mom for safety. He really loved the wonderfully entertaining climax, in which Steed and Gambit both have the exact same ideas, execution, and dumb jokes, and glare at each other for daring to steal the other’s thunder. The revelation of what those ideas are is a real treat.

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The New Avengers 1.4 – The Midas Touch

Our son has entered that phase of a young boy’s life where skeletons are incredibly cool. It took me years to get out of that phase. Hopefully he won’t do anything so silly as buy a Tarot deck because there are skeletons on some of the cards. Anyway, the first few episodes of The New Avengers have a title sequence made from exciting scenes from the first few stories, including the bit shown above where a villain at a costume party, dressed in a skull mask and red robe, puts his infected hands in a bowl of punch. When he first saw that he shouted “Aw, that looks cool!” and while the reality of the situation did disappoint him a little – no, the Avengers did not get to fight a living skeleton this week – he did enjoy every tire-squealing moment of this story.

There are lots of reasons I’ve always liked this story. Earlier, I had said that one strike against The New Avengers for a lot of people is that it’s really tied to one time and place instead of in a nebulous, fantasy Avengerland. With that in mind, director Robert Fuest is back on the show after so many imaginatively-photographed stories in the original show’s last year, and he really nails this down to 1976 by staging an incredibly seventies car chase through many of the same streets and locations that every other British action show of the time used.

Almost inevitably, Purdey and Gambit end up in the iconic abandoned warehouses of the Southall Gas Works, where The Sweeney and Doctor Who had both filmed in the previous three years. I’ve always enjoyed how the script subverts the expectations of the car chase by having Purdey and Gambit discuss whether it was Walter or John Huston who directed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre while bystanders drop crates of fruit on the windshield of their speeding car.

I was a little less keen on them casting Ronald Lacey as an allegedly Chinese character, “number one son” accent and all, especially when the character is called “Hong Kong Harry” and he might as well have been a Brit abroad instead of a silly stereotype. John Carson is also here, as a disgraced former agent who stumbles on a secret plot and, by the law of this sort of show, signs his own death warrant.

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The New Avengers 1.3 – The Last of the Cybernauts…??

The New Avengers had finished production more than a year before it finally showed up in the United States. In September 1978, “The Eagle’s Nest” debuted on The CBS Late Movie, which had started as a showcase for old and interesting films but had become the dumping ground for all sorts of heavily-edited repeats. In many markets, the local affiliate delayed it until after midnight, or left it to another channel entirely. In Atlanta, Late Movie often turned up not on what was then the CBS station, WAGA, but on one of the independent channels, WANX… which later became WGCL and is today Atlanta’s CBS station, oddly enough.

In late 1987, I traded with a guy who was probably Earth’s biggest Maverick fan for three episodes of The New Avengers. These came from The CBS Late Movie broadcasts and holy anna, they weren’t kidding when they called these heavily edited. In Mark Dawidziak’s excellent book The Columbo Phile, Richard Levinson is quoted as being really unhappy that each seventy-five minute Columbo episode was pruned by twenty minutes for that show. The New Avengers is, of course, a fifty minute program, but CBS hacked them down to forty. No wonder I had such disinterest in this show for so long. They were barely coherent, sloppily edited, and the CBS version of “The Last of the Cybernauts…??” gave the villains a lot less screen time. The entire scene in the photo above was never shown in America.

So when I got a complete copy years later, I liked this story a whole lot more. I still wouldn’t call it great, but it’s a really entertaining ride, and while the diabolical mastermind of the piece, Robert Lang, may not be in Michael Gough or Peter Cushing’s league, he’s memorable and creepy with his gaudy jacket and plastic masks. Also, the fight on the staircase, when Gambit and Purdey have a desperate brawl with a Cybernaut, is just phenomenally well shot and edited. Our kid enjoyed the almighty heck out of this one, and claims to be happiest with a huge explosion early on, but when Gambit rounds a corner on the stairs and misses having the Cybernaut karate-chop his head off by about two inches, our son was so startled that he just about jumped off the sofa.

This is an appropriate place to pause and talk about the DVDs I’m using. I picked up A&E’s Region 1 releases of this series around 2005, but decided against upgrading because while certain European releases are said to be somewhat better, they are all said to have some notable flaws. But help should be on the way. Network always keeps things a little secret, so everybody was very pleasantly surprised when just about three weeks ago, they announced a brand new restoration of all three Cybernaut episodes – the two from 1965 and 1967 and this one – for Blu-ray. They haven’t formally announced that a full remaster of The New Avengers is coming, but if you click that image above to go to Network’s site and watch that trailer – especially just after you’ve watched this episode in the acceptable/tolerable quality that A&E released – your jaw will probably hit the floor when you see just how vivid, bright and amazing the staircase fight looks.

Money was a little tight when I sprung for my multi-region DVD player and I couldn’t justify the cost of going multi-region for Blu-ray too. I’m sure Network will find it in their hearts to put out their beautiful remasters on DVD as well… right, viewers?

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The New Avengers 1.2 – House of Cards

Look there, people didn’t just forget the difference between your and you’re when the internet started. They didn’t know in 1976, either.

“House of Cards” shows us a little of what Steed’s been up to since we last saw him. He’s raising horses and lives in a nice house in the country. He’s started dating. Some time prior to this episode, he had taken his girlfriend, whose name is Joanna, played by Geraldine Moffat, on a date to some event where she briefly met another important character in this story. She makes what is apparently the first of what will be only two visits to Steed’s home in this story, where she learns that Steed keeps framed portraits of Cathy Gale, Emma Peel, and Tara King on a mantle. And on the second visit, she tries to kill Steed because she’s a sleeper agent who’s been in the UK since 1956.

We had to give our kid a quick lesson in what sleeper agents are, because this week’s villain, played by Peter Jeffrey, activates a network of them after he was embarrassed to have our heroes snatch a defector out from under him. This happens in a terrific pre-credits sequence where Gambit dresses as a pop star – very ahead of his time, as he has corporate logos on his clothes! – and Steed sends a dozen screaming teenage girls, and Purdey, after him to cause a massive distraction. “Remember girls, you’re screaming for Britain,” he coaches. Our kid enjoyed this scene most of all and waited patiently for anything as amusing to happen after it. There were good fights and chases, sure, but he liked the opening best.

Also in the show this week: Annette Andre, who was Marty Hopkirk’s widow in one of the other shows we’re watching right now, finds herself a widow in this episode, because her husband is also a sleeper agent. He can’t bring himself to kill Steed, so he breaks cover to warn him and Peter Jeffrey has to kill him. Jeffrey’s character, Ivan Perov, is a really great villain, and I love how the writer, Brian Clemens, uses some very, very subtle foreshadowing to let us know that the agent’s failure is all part of his plan. There’s lots to love about this one.

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