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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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The New Avengers 1.1 – The Eagle’s Nest

These days, when they make a new season of Will & Grace or Murphy Brown, they don’t need to stick “The New” in front of it. But in the 1970s, there was this expectation that TV viewers were stupid and didn’t know a repeat from an original program, so you had Return of the Saint or Halloween with the New Addams Family or, instead of just another series of The Avengers after a seven year break, it needed to be called “The New.”

It’s 1976, and joining Patrick Macnee for two more seasons of diabolical masterminds and bizarre science, it’s Gareth Hunt as Mike Gambit and Joanna Lumley as the deliciously weird Purdey. She takes that TV standard of women doing the action stuff in inappropriate heels and clothes and ramps it up to eleven. She goes out to a remote island in a wetsuit, and underneath, well, there are no words to explain what she’s wearing:

Gambit’s a more traditional meat-n-potatoes action hero, sort of the superspy version of Willie Caine in The Sandbaggers. He mentions in Brian Clemens’ opening installment of this series that he had taken three bullets getting over the Berlin Wall the previous year, which isn’t the sort of thing you could imagine happening in the Avengers of the sixties. The shift in the world around the Avengers is what’s caused this show to always have a detractor or two. The original Avengers was set in a fantasy neverland that looked like England in the sixties. The New Avengers is set in 1976. The plots are as outrageous as ever (Remember how I mentioned cryogenics the other night? Well, the frozen corpse in this one is Adolf Hitler.) but this looks, feels, and practically smells like the year it was made.

And for a long, stupid time, I held that against The New Avengers. When I was a teen, I thought that the sixties were some idealized dream time (I read Rolling Stone magazine then, and it certainly didn’t dissuade me), but the mid-seventies were just the rotten days of grime and gas shortages and inflation and ugly cars. Weirdly, all sorts of fans and critics have echoed that nebulous feeling, that this show has too much of an anchor in a real world that they’d rather not remember. For a long time, I was missing out. I only had three (edited) episodes of the show on VHS for a very long time, and they were not at all the best three episodes, but as I picked up more installments into the mid-nineties, this show’s considerable charms became more and more apparent.

There’s lots and lots more to say about the series’ background, and the underwhelming copies released in North America by A&E from which these underwhelming screencaps come, in later installments, but before this runs too long, I’ll just say that this episode was written by Brian Clemens, features guest stars Peter Cushing – not playing a villain! – and Frank Gatliff, and entertained the almighty heck out of our son. He loved the fights and the surprises and the mystery, and was very pleased to see that Steed now carries a two-way radio in his bowler hat. And see, that’s the sort of dopey Roger Moore Bond gadget that I’d have once found cringeworthy, but I just checked, and our son absolutely wants a hat with a radio in it now.

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The Avengers 7.26 – Bizarre

The final episode of The Avengers has more holes in its plot than there are getaway doors in Mr. Happychap’s cemetery, but our son didn’t mind a bit. He chuckled almost all the way through this, shouting “This IS bizarre” with the opening shot of a barefoot woman in a nightdress collapsing in a snowy field and cheering on the final fight at the end, but mostly laughing over Roy Kinnear’s great performance as Mr. Bagpipes Happychap.

Poor Mr. Happychap’s services are being misused by the show’s last diabolical mastermind, Fulton Mackay, who keeps sending Happychap the supposed corpses of rich financiers and then spiriting them away to his underground pleasure palace, stuffed with fruit, wine, and cute girls. Brian Clemens basically rewrote his Adam Adamant Lives! adventure “The Terribly Happy Embalmers” as farce, and had the bad guys actually playing fair with their clients. I’ve honestly never enjoyed this story much at all before this afternoon, but my son’s right. Kinnear really is hilarious. I had a good time watching this with him.

The most bizarre moment, however, actually comes at the end, when Mother breaks the fourth wall and makes the quite indefensible statement to the viewers at home that Steed and Tara would be back. “You can depend on it.” Back in August, shortly after we started watching this final run, I explained the strange circumstances behind ABC’s order of these last 26 episodes. The Avengers spent the 1968-69 season in the bottom five of the Nielsens, mainly because of its competition, but also because by the spring of 1969, the spy craze was dead. It’s why George Lazenby declined to make any more James Bond films after his first one. People often mock Lazenby for that “mistake,” but look around at 1969. Can you blame him? Dean Martin’s entertaining series of Matt Helm movies had ended, and NBC even cancelled Get Smart. Like all the other secret agent stuff of the sixties, this show was yesterday’s news. There’s no way ABC would have ordered more, and the show’s producers had to have known that.

Without ABC’s money, The Avengers couldn’t have continued at the same budget. But it’s just as well it ended when it did. The series was running on fumes and goodwill by the end, and everyone involved needed a nice long break. Seven years would pass before Patrick Macnee would don his bowler hat again for the thunderously good first series of The New Avengers.

We won’t make our readers wait quite seven years to see what would happen next, but we are going to keep The New Avengers on the shelf for a few months while we look at some other things. I think we’ll meet Purdey and Gambit in the summer. Stay tuned!

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The Avengers 7.25 – Pandora

For most of the early to mid-seventies, Brian Clemens was busy writing and producing an incredibly curious anthology series for ATV called Thriller. It’s a weird format of 65-minute episodes. Some of them – not very many, but some – are tremendously good, with twists that rival anything else from The Twilight Zone to a cracking Alan Moore Future Shock, but they are all hampered a little bit by the weird running time. The show was made for quick, cheap sales to ABC, who’d give each episode very, very long “movie of the week” credits and, with twenty minutes of ads, run them in a ninety-minute late-night slot.

What happens in a typical episode of Thriller is that the plot starts immediately, before we really spend any time getting to know the characters. And then the main character, frequently a woman, frequently the lone American in the cast, is stuck in a plot that usually has them kept in the dark by some villain for freaking ever until a darn-near-the-last-minute revelation. With good enough actors, I’m willing to sit still to see the bad guy’s plan through its conclusion and, often, its backfiring. The first episode of Thriller actually stars Linda Thorson, alongside Doomwatch‘s Robert Powell and Get Smart‘s Barbara Feldon. I’d probably watch the three of them read the phone book. Once.

But Thriller doesn’t have a lot of repeat pleasure, and neither does “Pandora,” the next-to-last Avengers episode from the original run, which is practically a pilot for Thriller. I found myself thinking that this could have been so much better with a wild fantasy element. There’s a glimmer of a chance that the criminals in this story have time-traveled to the present day from 1915 to kidnap Tara, but no, it’s far more mundane than that. Also, it requires that Tara be drugged into a stupor so that she’s a completely passive player in the bad guys’ story.

Our son absolutely loathed these villains, one of whom is played by Julian Glover in his umpteenth and final Avengers appearance. “I hope she punches them in the face!” he yelled. Bizarrely, she doesn’t get the chance. Steed arrives at the end, but he doesn’t quite get to make the rescue. It’s the villains’ story, and their greed ensures their destruction.

Robert Fuest makes it look terrific and he lines up his usual fun shots with mirrors and hidden characters, but it’s a very difficult story to watch without wanting to skip to the end. Several Thriller stories are like that, too.

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