The Hardy Boys 3.3 – Assault on the Tower

Last year for Christmas, our son got some Marvel superheroes wall art. One of the pieces is the cover of The Avengers # 70, drawn by Sal Buscema. Tonight at supper, I asked our son whether he knew who those four villains on the cover were. I explained that they were versions of Superman, Batman, the Flash and Green Lantern. That same winter, over in DC’s Justice League of America comic, that company’s heroes were locked in combat with pastiches of Thor, Scarlet Witch, and Ant-Man.

It’s how you do a crossover, or use a character, when the writers are enthusiastic about an idea but the people who actually own the rights to a character don’t allow it because they can’t agree about the money. In another example that our son enjoyed learning about, some Doctor Who fans started making their own independent films in the early nineties, hiring Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant to play “The Stranger and Miss Brown.” Another example that I adore is a short scene in one of Laurie King’s novels where somebody who’s clearly meant to be Lord Peter Wimsey makes a short appearance, talking piffle.

And then there’s this episode of The Hardy Boys, where Patrick Macnee plays, not John Steed, but an agent from the Ministry who doesn’t have a name, but knows how to wear a bowler and carry an umbrella. The very first shot of the episode is of a chess board, bowler, and an umbrella, pulling back to reveal the special guest star. Our son instantly beamed and shouted “Steed!” Thank heavens. The way his memory for faces runs, if we’d have waited another month, he may not have recognized him.

The rational part of me has known for years that this was bound to be a little underwhelming, and yet I’ve been saving it for a rainy day for such a long time. Patrick Macnee gets a couple of chances to twinkle and shine, but the nature of The Hardy Boys‘ family hour 7 pm time slot means that anybody expecting a proper Avengers brawl is bound to be disappointed. There’s one great example when Steed and Joe turn off the lights in Steed’s flat – he appears to be back in central London – in anticipation of two intruders, and the next thing we see is the police coming in to find the villains tied up.

Speaking of villains… there have been times watching The Hardy Boys when Universal did a pretty good job pretending their backlot and the neighboring hotels were other countries. This is not one of those times. At least the not even remotely British actors pretending to be British, including such resoundingly Yankee thespians as Pernell Roberts, Leon Ames, and Dana Andrews, speak in a reasonable facsimile of British terminology and slang. Roberts even manages a not-cringeworthy attempt at a RP accent. Ames doesn’t even bother trying. But the production department were way out of their league. “Leicester” and “Sceptre” are misspelled on props, the men of the Flying Squad wear tailored Savile Row suits and operate from cavernous offices with immaculate furniture, and the plainclothes police don’t show up at crime scenes in beat-up old Ford Consuls and Granadas, but in gray Jaguars with blue lights and POLICE written on the side. And nobody calls anybody “guv,” guv.

Put another way, the episode climaxes in the sewers underneath the Tower of London, and I was about ready for the giant rat from “Gnaws” to show up and eat somebody.

The episode ends with Steed spotting a “Mrs. —” in the airport and going to meet her to the tune of Laurie Johnson’s Avengers theme. You can even say that he hesitates when about to say “Peel,” not because Universal didn’t want to aggravate the trademark owners, but because “K is for Kill” establishes that Emma no longer goes by Mrs. Peel and he was stumbling trying to remember her name.

That was cute, but if I might indulge in a little speculation, Patrick Macnee wasn’t the only name from The New Avengers to show up in The Hardy Boys. At the end of this season, directors Sidney Hayers and Ray Austin, who between them shot more than half of the UK-based New Avengers, each helmed a Hardy installment. Glen A. Larson continued to use both directors on his hit series throughout the 1980s, and had Macnee in front of the cameras as often as he could. Macnee and Anne Lockhart, who we saw in the previous story, were doing voiceovers and recurring parts in Battlestar Galactica at the same time these episodes were made.

We know that CBS was interested in an American Avengers series. They’d hired Brian Clemens to write a script for Quinn Martin’s production company. As I mentioned earlier, this was called Escapade, a deliberate clone of The Avengers starring Granville Van Dusen and Morgan Fairchild. The pilot was shown in May 1978 and forgotten. CBS then added The New Avengers to their late-night lineup in September 1978, and then this aired on ABC in October.

What if Glen A. Larson, by bringing Macnee, Hayers, and Austin together, was making the case that he might be suited to produce the series in America? Clearly not, as this episode shows, an Avengers set in Britain, because they really couldn’t pull it off, but is it possible that Larson might have pitched an Avengers starring Macnee, set in Los Angeles or Washington with a couple of new characters? Could it have been any good? Could it at least have been better than the Canadian New Avengers? Fun to think about, isn’t it? I wonder who the new leads might have been in Larson’s hands…

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!

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.

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…

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.

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.)

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…

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.

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.

The New Avengers 2.5 – Obsession

Unfortunately, tonight’s episode was one where our son lost the plot very early on, never recovered, and ended up so confused and dispirited that he thought the bad guys had stolen a missile for the purpose of shooting down a satellite, which was a very minor plot complication that was over and done with inside ten minutes. He grumbled that it was weird and strange that they would want to destroy something that could be so valuable. We told him it was time enough to retire the words weird and strange and when he loses track of the story to tell us.

The most amusing part of “Obsession” comes right at the end, when the bad guys – played by Martin Shaw and Lewis Collins – are going their separate ways, and Collins says to Shaw, “Maybe we should work together again. We’re a good team.” About four months later, the actors would begin working together again for five series of Clemens’ successful The Professionals. Between you and me, I could do without that show and would rather they made five more series of this one.

The New Avengers 2.4 – The Lion and the Unicorn

A couple of episodes ago, we got a snatch of filming in Paris. “The Lion and the Unicorn” is set in the city, the first of three episodes to be largely set in France, and sees our heroes capturing an international assassin. The Unicorn has been avoiding Steed for a decade, only to have the assassin’s incompetent associates – I mean “Lex Luthor keeping Otis around” incompetent – unwittingly shoot their boss dead from across the street while aiming for Steed. As long as the baddies don’t know that their boss is dead, everything’s fine. But then they kidnap some small-fry European royalty and demand an exchange.

Our son was incredibly pleased with this one, but the execution fumbled for me. It starts in England, with both a very good car chase and a small appearance by Gerald Sim before we move to Paris and a supporting cast of French actors.

In France, there’s another car chase which had our kid in stitches and me appreciating his good humor more than anything that made it onscreen. There’s nothing wrong with playing a car chase strictly for laughs, but without the budget and ability to close the Parisian streets like a Bond or a Bourne film, and risk any parked cars, we keep getting the silly after-effects of cars that have just sped by without us seeing them. Throw in a climactic explosion which only lacks a comedy womp-womp soundtrack, and you’ll probably wonder whether the director thought he was making a cheap Inspector Clouseau film instead of The New Avengers.