Fifty-two years later, the talk of transistors in “The Cybernauts” is incredibly dated. And the slow, slow revelation that the silent, powerful assassin is a karate-chopping robot, well, that’s the sort of thing contemporary TV establishes before the opening credits without blinking. You have to make allowances for older television; for many viewers then, this was an extraordinarily strange concept.
But if you can put your mind back to 1965, “The Cybernauts” is downright amazing. There’s a reason why ABC chose this episode to launch the program’s run in America. The story by Philip Levene is stylish and witty and has an incredibly palpable sense of danger and suspense. The investigation is straightforward and the characters are believably in the dark. This is a complicated and outre plan for 1965, and Steed and Mrs. Peel are written in a way that television protagonists typically aren’t anymore. They don’t have access to any additional information; they have to dig it all up, with the audience coming along for the ride. And sure, modern audiences will figure out that it’s a robot earlier than our heroes. I don’t think that most people in 1965-66 would.
Macnee and Rigg are helped this week by one of the most amazing guest casts of any British program of the period. Check out the names: Michael Gough and Frederick Jaeger as the villains, John Hollis as a karate dojo, and Bernard Horsfall, Ronald Leigh-Hunt, and Bert Kwouk as industrialists involved with the evil plot. Gough’s Dr. Armstrong is one of the all-time great Avengers villains, and that’s with a lot of competition to come.
Our son, meanwhile, claims that he hated it. He absolutely insists that he hated it. It was far too scary, he complains, and he never wants to see it again.
Then he went upstairs and started karate-chopping his pillow with big sound effects.
Oh, good. Buchan figured it out like I was hoping last time. After the first storyline ended through luck and betrayal instead of any actual work on the heroes’ part, I was a little worried.
This one has a pretty terrific finale, full of fistfights and gunplay and a visit from both a naval helicopter and some stock footage of a couple of destroyers. Our son was really pleased with this adventure and all the excitement. I was very glad that he enjoyed it so much.
Unfortunately, as I wrote a few weeks ago, this is the only Freewheelers story available at present. This would be the final appearances for Colonel Buchan, Ryan, and Burke, and the last for Sue for a while. Series seven, shown in the fall of 1972, featured Mike and Steve along with a new character played by Caroline Ellis getting involved in a couple of adventures. In the fall of 1973, series eight featured just Sue, along with a new character played by Martin Neil, in a thirteen-week story.
It ended there after 104 episodes, which is an insanely high number for a British show from this period. The last two seasons were repeated on a satellite channel in the nineties, from which some bootlegs made their way around. Some wiseguy even got a listing on Amazon UK for his DVD-R boots of these episodes. I confess that I was tempted, but decided to hope that one day they’ll get a legitimate release. Fingers crossed!
Caine’s plan is devious, I’ll admit, but I’m not all that sure I’m ready to agree that it’s plausible. Having replaced the lug nuts and muffler and other parts of Buchan’s Lotus with painted gold, he arranges for Buchan to be recalled to England, where customs officers search the car. They’re not immediately ready to believe that he’s from MI-5 and they find the gold.
So what Caine wants to do, while actually moving the gold by boat, is convince Buchan that they’re scheming to smuggle it out £60,000 at a time on one hundred cars. I’m hopeful that Buchan won’t fall for this. Surely he’s going to realize that somebody tipped off customs, right? If they accidentally and randomly pulled him over, then it’s possible that they stumbled on the scheme, but the tip-off obviously means that Caine wants Buchan to think this is the real plan, meaning it’s a red herring. But will Buchan figure it out? The answers in the (hopefully) exciting conclusion, next time…
So all the action moves over to Amsterdam, and a windmill near the town of Weesp where Caine has holed up. Interestingly, Leonard Gregory didn’t get to come on location with everybody else.
For people who enjoy looking at the way British television used to be made, there’s a very curious little scene here in which Colonel Buchan discusses the criminals with Captain Rylandt of the Amsterdam police. As you often see with British TV from the seventies, the show is made with the exteriors shot on 16mm film, and the interiors done in the studio on videotape. Rylandt’s office is filmed, therefore it appears to have been shot in the Netherlands with the other material.
But Marie said that a couple of things about it clued her in to the likelihood that this wasn’t filmed abroad. There are two posters for the Rijksmuseum in Rylandt’s office, which struck her as being a lot like the captain’s office in an episode of Law & Order having a couple of posters of the Statue of Liberty. She also said that the actor’s accent wasn’t right. She was correct. It’s a British actor named Arnold Diamond, who had dozens of small roles in films and TV shows, mainly police dramas, in the seventies and eighties.
I wonder whether we’ll see Diamond actually on location in the next episode, or whether the producers shot this and other scenes in his office in the UK, using a film camera rather than building an office set in a studio, using the different appearance of film and tape to fool viewers into thinking he was really Dutch?
Anyway, it turns out that part of Caine’s plan involves smuggling some of the stolen gold back to the UK by way of disguised auto parts. Buchan’s own car is nobbled and the garage that the villains are using is recommended, and Ryan and Burke install a brand new solid gold muffler on his Lotus. Seems a shame that they had to paint it all silver, really.
So much happens in these episodes! This time out, we’ve got a rescue at sea, Colonel Buchan having no trouble whatsoever getting rid of a bomb, Burke planning something involving a television crew and a yacht race, and even more business with the code that the previous episode introduced.
I wonder whether there was some way for viewers to follow along at home and crack this code. Throughout the seventies, the magazine Look-In (“the Junior TV Times“) ran comics and features based on ITV’s adventures aimed at kids and families. If they didn’t run this code for families to puzzle over, they sure missed a trick.
The episode seems to end with a surprising twist. Commander Caine goes off to retrieve that missing £6,000,000 in gold, but it’s apparently not in France after all. At the climax, we see that he’s made his way to the Netherlands. Marie and I were both born in 1971, the year this was made. She was born in Minnesota, but her mother is Dutch, and she’s made many trips to the Netherlands to visit family. We’re going to enjoy seeing what that country looked like when she was an infant.
I don’t have too much to say about this episode, other than to note the absolutely terrible pun my son improvised. It’s all built around an incredibly complex cypher that Nero had used to hide that £6,000,000 he sent to France. It has three layers, and Commander Caine can break one of them with a key that’s on a ceramic plate. So Steve, held prisoner by the villains, kicks the plate out of Caine’s hand, where it shatters on the floor.
“He cracked the code,” our son cheered. His pun-loving mother was so proud.
With Nero defeated, killed in the huge explosion last time, a new villain enters the proceedings. Mike and Steve, escaping from Ryan and Burke, meet him, but he seems to be a perfectly amiable retired naval commander. He even gives the boys a lift to the bus stop. It’s only after Ryan and Burke show up on the boys’ trail that we learn Commander Caine has plans to pick up where Nero left off, and jobs for them. Fortunately for our heroes, Caine never learned that they had the black box that he needed all along.
Commander Caine is played by Kevin Stoney, and I was pleased that our son remembered him as Tobias Vaughn from the Doctor Who story “The Invasion” a couple of months ago. He may have a little trouble remembering that his name is Caine, though. He noticed that Nero was introduced in an episode called “Nero,” and so he concluded that the new villain would be named Black Box. I’m pleased that he’s thinking about these things, even with such a funny flaw in the logic!
Our son has turned around a lot on this show. He was really excited tonight and thought this was completely thrilling. It included a helicopter chase and ended with a huge explosion as Nero’s plans are foiled.
I must say, however, that Col. Buchan is not entirely in the same league as John Steed or John Drake when it comes to saving the UK from evil threats. He does have the sense to send “the kids” out of the way when he goes to stop Nero, but his plan wouldn’t work at all if the villains all hadn’t started double-crossing each other. He’s even completely in the dark about Nero’s big change of plans. He’s not going to blackmail the world at all, just kill everyone with Medusa while he and his hand-picked survivors wait out things underground for two years. Lucky for us everybody started stabbing each other in the back, then.
I kid, it’s all in good fun, but there is a real disappointment this week, and that’s Jerome Willis going completely loopy. My wife and I recently finished watching the excellent spy series The Sandbaggers (1978-80), in which Willis appeared as an office-bound twit, albeit who should never be underestimated, and I was so used to his controlled and measured performance there that seeing him chew the scenery talking about destroying the world caused me to wince. We’ll see him again in Doctor Who a few months from now as a somewhat more successful villain.