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The New Avengers 2.13 – Forward Base

In late 1987, as I recounted previously, I did a swap for three, and only three, episodes of The New Avengers with a guy who had most of the series, or maybe all of them. I sent him my list and there were only three hours that he wanted, so I needed to send him two tapes. I don’t remember what he wanted, but I know I filled the rest of tape two with other things, samples of other programs he may not have known about. And I got back “The Last of the Cybernauts…??” and “Gnaws” on one tape, because I wanted to see the famous villain’s third appearance and the infamous one everybody talked about, and I got “Forward Base” by itself on the second.

I think I picked “Forward Base” because it was listed as the final episode in one of Dave Rogers’ many books about The Avengers, and it was shown last in maybe his ITV region and in Australia. I like watching them in the order presented by Dave Rogers and by A&E’s old DVDs. There’s no real continuity to speak of in this series, except that in both “Complex” and this one, our heroes arrive in Canada, and in the other two, they’re having a “working holiday.” Maybe they went back to Avengerland after “Emily” for a while and came back for this last adventure.

In 1987-89, I rewatched television much, much more than I do these days. “Forward Base” is about a hidden Soviet base somewhere in North America that turns out to be closer than anyone predicted, but any wit is hidden underneath bland cinematography, disinterested direction, and very, very poor performances from the guest stars. But even though it was really dry and dull, I watched it nine or ten times. Its visuals were burned enough in my brain that on one trip to visit my good friends in Canada, we went to the Centreville Amusement Park on Centre Island and I recognized the famous swan boats and the view of the city from the island’s north shore from this episode.

And that was that for The New Avengers. The money had run out, it wouldn’t get sold to an American network for more than a year – and then at CBS’s much lower offer for repeats – and the executive producers, Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell, were already working on their next series, The Professionals, at the same time that the last four New Avengers were being produced in Canada by Hugh Harlow and Jim Hanley.

Rewatching these really reinforced my opinion that these four were such a massive missed opportunity. There’s nothing about any of them that stands out in any visual way, and nothing in the scripts that provide any feeling of cultural identity or sense of place. Put another way, if Universal or somebody had offered up some money to make and set the last four episodes of the show in Los Angeles instead, then a New Avengers in Hollywood could easily have felt as much like southern California as say, The Rockford Files or Columbo did at the time. The New Avengers in Toronto might as well have been in Buffalo or Cleveland or Indianapolis.

Or possibly not. CBS didn’t like The New Avengers enough to air it in their prime-time lineup, but they liked it enough to commission Brian Clemens to write a pilot for an American version of the show for Quinn Martin’s company to produce. The show would have been called Escapade, starring Granville van Dusen as the American Steed-equivalent and Morgan Fairchild as his partner, and they burned off the unsold pilot in May 1978, four months before The New Avengers debuted in late night. If you’ve never had the misfortune of watching this garish and badly dated turkey, just struggle through the title sequence on YouTube sometime. We might have dodged a bullet, and wished the show had been made in someplace like Toronto instead!

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The New Avengers 2.12 – Emily

Well… trust Dennis Spooner to write an Avengers script absolutely unlike every other Avengers script.

The first half of “Emily” is actually very good, and not just for the trainspotters in the audience who enjoy looking at old Ontario. There’s a little bit of Toronto in the story, but more of the action takes place in the Woodbridge neighborhood of Vaughn, and the script suggests that these two cities are separated by the Ozarks, basically.

And it’s a good little chase story for a while, as our heroes hunt down a double agent called the Fox, who picks up his snatched information via water ski in Humber Bay Park. I’d seen this before, years ago, and remembered disliking it, but the first half is perfectly entertaining. The second half is also perfectly entertaining, if you’re eight.

Making a getaway, the Fox leaves a palm print on the roof of a 1950s Plymouth sedan. Not being able to trust anybody, our heroes, accompanied by some hoedown music, drive into a rural car comedy of the seventies, avoiding the police and the enemy agents on the dirt roads and hollers between yonder and Toronto. There are chicken farmers with shotguns, moonshiners with a hankerin’ for some fightin’, and fellers in cowboy hats neckin’ with their girlfriends in junkyards. It’s not often you see the stars of one television series drive right into another one, but they did it here. Unfortunately, I didn’t think it was all that funny, apart from one bit where the police dispatcher gets a new bit of information that has him fighting to even finish his sentence because it’s so delightfully absurd. The kid just howled all the way through it. This was written for kids and succeeds mightily with that age.

Oh, did I say police? That’s actually the weirdest thing about the Canadian episodes. There are trigger-happy cops and tire-squealing police cars in all the episodes. There aren’t any policemen at all in the Avengerland of the United Kingdom. The show exists without them. The rules are different in Canada.

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The New Avengers 2.11 – The Gladiators

Naturally, our son really liked Brian Clemens’ “The Gladiators.” It’s full of superpowered, super-trained, super-assassins from Russia punching holes in steel plate and whacking Canadian intelligence agents over the hoods of their cars, while accompanied, bizarrely, by the unmistakable sound effect of a Cybernaut’s lethal karate chop. This one’s clearly inspired by the success of ABC’s pair of Bionic superspy series, but I found myself thinking this episode would have been more entertaining if they had been a bit more honest and had the villains be a bunch of seven million ruble cyborgs.

As for me moaning about the anonymous locations, this was the one of the four New Avengers Canadian productions that I’d never got around to watching before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Most of this story is filmed in towns and suburbs outside of Toronto’s city center, with the bad guys holing up in a training facility not unlike one of those country houses in Hertfordshire seven or eight miles away from Elstree Studios. Well, not every episode of the original show or its ITC imitators found reason to be in central London, so I shouldn’t complain…

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The New Avengers 2.10 – Complex

The New Avengers was constantly short on money, in part because there wasn’t a TV network financing its production. The people in charge did that themselves, hoping for international sales later. So when the money started running out in 1977 and a Canadian company said that they were willing to pay for four episodes, but only if they were made in Canada, Brian Clemens wasn’t really in a position to say no.

So in July and August of 1977, production decamped to Ontario. These four episodes are nobody’s favorites. “Complex” was written by Dennis Spooner, and about the best thing you can say about it is that it’s better than “Medium Rare.” It’s an evil supercomputer story – The Avengers had done that a couple of times before – and it guest stars Cec Linder. He had played Felix Leiter in Goldfinger and scientist Matthew Roney in the original TV serial version of Quatermass and the Pit, and he was mainly working in Canada in the late 1970s.

But really the most interesting thing about “Complex” is that it’s filmed in Toronto. And yet the director, maddeningly, picked utterly anonymous locations, giving the impression that Toronto is any mid-sized, bland, beige, largely clean city, free of landmarks or anything of interest. They call this Toronto, but it might as well be Cleveland.

I have only been to Toronto three times, decades after these were made, and don’t pretend to know the city well, but I guarantee you that given a TARDIS trip back to July 1977, I could have found a whole lot more interesting things to stick our heroes in front of than this director did. I’m going to hope the other three episodes show off the city a little better, because the only remotely identifiable places in “Complex” are the westbound lanes of Lawrence Avenue, and the Pickin’ Chicken Bar-B-Q, which had been closed for at least seven years and was on Lake Shore Boulevard, at a point which was then on the outer fringes of one of the streetcar lines. Fingers crossed for the next three. I know we’ll see the swan boats of Centre Island, but I wonder what else…

And yes, call me predictable, but there are as yet undiscovered tribes in the heart of the Peruvian jungle who knew I was going to screencap that barbecue restaurant.

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The New Avengers 2.9 – K is for Kill (part two)

Well, our son really enjoyed both parts of “K is for Kill,” telling us that it was very exciting and that he liked it a lot. I think it’s pretty basic action-adventure by the numbers, and both episodes suffer from the momentum running down very badly toward the end of each part. Maybe they spent all the money on the extras and the explosions in part one, because there was next to nothing left to cover the funeral in part two. And don’t get me started on the inefficiency of the French security forces, letting two killers get within eyesight of that graveyard.

Maybe The New Avengers in France just wasn’t a good idea. It’s kind of a show that needs to stay in the UK. (That’s foreshadowing, that is.)

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The New Avengers 2.8 – K is for Kill (part one)

Brian Clemens’ “K is for Kill” is the only surviving two-part Avengers story. The very first two episodes of the series, from 1961, “Hot Snow” and “Brought to Book,” each deal with the same set of criminals, but those aren’t available for us to see. I think that “K is for Kill” is a more obvious-to-the-viewer feature-length adventure, dealing with another company of Russian sleeper agents, but this bunch have a curious distinction. They’re all in their sixties and seventies, but thanks to a secret that had been closely guarded by an unknown monk in Tibet, they appear to be in their twenties. Something has activated some of these soldiers and, with very out-of-date information and maps, they begin a guerilla assault on abandoned chateaus and war museums in the rural country west of Paris.

Here’s the weirdest thing about “K is for Kill”: Mrs. Peel is sort of in it. Thanks to some repurposed footage from two decade-old color episodes and the uncredited voice of Sue Lloyd, imitating Diana Rigg, on the telephone, talking with Steed, she makes a strange and utterly unnecessary appearance in the story. We open with the Russian army in Tibet in 1945 learning about the eternal youth experiments, and then it picks up twenty years later, with a strange mass murder in a small English village. Steed reports in to Mrs. Peel, suggesting it’s a case that they may never solve.

Now this, you’d think, is the setup to have Diana Rigg come back for the show’s big two-part adventure. Except Diana Rigg didn’t seem to be all that interested in action-adventure TV at that stage in her career. So when there’s another weird killing in France in 1977, Steed phones our heroine, who’d seen the papers and was expecting his call, and he lets her know that he’s off to the continent. And shockingly, she tells him that she’s changed her name and isn’t Mrs. Peel any more! Well, call me judgemental, but if Air Ace Peter Peel isn’t in the picture anymore, then what the heck’s Emma doing not beating up Cybernauts and kicking diabolical masterminds across rooms?

Well, maybe it’s for the best. This is an adventure where armies are shooting at each other. There isn’t really a huge amount for Purdey and Gambit to do anyway. If they’d have dropped Mrs. Peel into the story, they might as well have left these two back in England…

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The New Avengers 2.7 – Hostage

I think there are one or two things about Brian Clemens’ “Hostage” that work, and our son enjoyed it more than the previous two episodes, but by and large I didn’t enjoy this one much at all. By far the best thing about it is the way it reintroduces and reemphasizes the rule that Steed always cheats. But tonight he doesn’t cheat nearly enough. This could have been a much more interesting story if, no matter how well-planned this week’s villains are, they had found themselves getting in way, way over their heads trying their scheme on their hero. It also would have been nice if Purdey, their hostage, would have used that great big length of chain they gave her to strangle one of her captors. Both Marie and I were waiting for that to happen.

So this is yet another instance where bad guys have a scheme to make Steed look like a traitor. That alone would be a bore – what are we, 180 episodes into this show, and we’re doing that again? – but it’s made more dreary by introducing a super-agent that we’ve never met before, played by Simon Oates, and expecting us to not see him as the only possible suspect. There’s also a new boss character called McKay, played by William Franklyn, who gets to introduce the big only-on-TV complication that Gambit needs to bring Steed in.

Could it have been done another way? Well, not easily, because this was actually the first episode that they filmed in the final thirteen. But just suppose that they had introduced Simon Oates’ character several episodes previously as a recurring good guy and a familiar face that we accepted as one of the heroes. And suppose that instead of a yet another brand new boss, they’d brought back somebody, anybody, that we’d seen before. Why not Patrick Newell, or even Linda Thorson, in this part? It might not have made this story great, but it would have made it less obvious.

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The New Avengers 2.6 – Trap

I’m predisposed to like anything with Stuart Damon – he’s here wearing a very Burt Reynolds mustache for one scene – and Ferdy Mayne – he’s one of the villains – but I don’t think I can find anything nice to say about Brian Clemens’ “Trap,” which at least had our son really worried for Gambit for a few minutes.

At its core, “Trap” is awful because of its flippant, disinterested racism. There’s a criminal named Soo Choy who is trying to impress three other international drug dealers, but all the trappings – sorry – of his lifestyle and operation are chunks of random Asian-nation stereotypes thrown into a blender. As written, he appears to be a Chinese man with a crew in Red Army fatigues, but he’s also all about samurai swords and bonsai trees and saving face. (Disagreeably, there was a lot of this going around in our culture in the late seventies. Just try to read the lyrics to Siouxsie and the Banshees’ first single, “Hong Kong Garden” without cringing.)

Making things even weirder, Soo Choy is played by an English actor, Terry Wood, but rather than speaking in the sort of me-so-solly voice you’d expect from something thoughtless from 1977, Wood speaks in a deep-voiced RP rasp. And he doesn’t shut up. The storytelling in The New Avengers is frequently unclear, especially where the passage of time is concerned, but I really think we missed a scene somewhere in this episode. I think “Soo Choy” must be some British criminal who just decided he’s in love with all things Asia and started calling his less obsessed buddies “gaijin,” and his syndicate pals are just forced to deal with him and his otaku ways. That doesn’t make the production any less cringeworthy, but maybe it explains what the idiot’s deal is.

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