Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Avengers Series 4 Episode 3: The Cybernauts


I must start this post with a confession of an Avengers fan heresy: I'm not frantically keen on the cybernauts story arc. One of the reasons I wanted to do these posts on these stories is that I want to try to get further into the stories to see what it is that people are so keen on!
This episode opens with a scene which sets the context of the story very clear: conflict between tradition and the brave new world of new technology. The cybernauts is therefore one of the Avengers episodes which features a fear - or perhaps ambivalence - towards modern technology. The traditional background is set plainly by the traditional furnishings of the room into which the cybernaut smashes his way, even down to the line of guns in a rack on the wall. I feel I recognise the sofa as the one on which the girls line up for their instructions in How to Succeed...at Murder. The way the cybernaut smashes through the door - a recurring theme of this episode - signifies the forcible entry of the future. The conflict between tradition and the brave new world is emphasised by the failure of the gun to kill - or indeed have any effect at all - on the cybernaut. Try as you might, you will be defenceless in a world in which technology runs rampant.
The scene where Steed and Mrs Peel set the background amidst the wreckage is one of my favourites in this episode. Fans often don't like it because of the relatively dowdy way Mrs Peel dresses, but you frankly wouldn't need a black leather cat suit for what she is doing here, since her role is more that of researcher than woman of action. When she does get into leather towards the end, it looks to me more like something Cathy Gale would have worn than a classic Emma Peeler, reinforcing her brainbox woman of recherche knowledge image in this episode.
It is not as simple as a straightforward conflict between the past and the future, though, it is more ambivalent than that, indicated by the scenes at the Harachi corporation and the karate dojo. On the one hand the Avengers are looking towards an ancient culture different to theirs for the answer to this problem, and on the other hand this ancient culture is also relatively new to Europe and apparently the vehicle for the invasion of the frightening new technology. There cannot have ever been a time in which a Japanese business man of great sophistication and good English would begin a letter with the words 'Honourable Gentleman', but the caricature of a Japanese accent with which Steed reads the letter indicates a suspicion of foreigners. This suspicion is actually a hindrance to the Avengers, since it leads them to a red herring: the karate dojo is not the source of the strange events at all. The complexity here has further layers added by the conflicting attitudes towards women at the dojo.
This complexity I think makes this Avengers really well plotted, giving it much in common with a conventional detective story. I'm torn, though, as to what I think about Mrs Peel's knowledge of karate. The whole point of the Avengers world is that it is not real, however I wonder whether there is anything Mrs Peel couldn't do! This apparent omniscience is a common theme for both Mrs Gale and Mrs Peel, only changing with Tara King. What makes this incredible - although this may not matter as I said - is that I find it difficult to believe that somebody with the apparent skill at karate Mrs Peel has, would not be generally known to the British karate world of the 1960s. She must have learned it somewhere, practised it somewhere, and so on. On the other hand it is clearly a plot device to add to the clash of cultures: modern liberated 'girl' using an ancient Japanese - and therefore foreign - martial art.
The scene in the dojo ends with Mrs Peel picking up her shoes and walking off - thoroughly emancipated girl - and is very cleverly immediately followed by the sight of Steed's bowler hat walking along above a partition. This visual clash is not enough, because where he walks into is an office set up in the style of a traditional Japanese home, even to the extent of being offered tea. Even more confusingly the 'geisha' girl behind the desk is called Smith.
I love the scene where Steed uses a camera hidden inside his umbrella - the symbol of his traditional-ness, to spy on Tusamo's papers on his desk. I love that Steed and Mrs Peel act like an old married couple in this one: she even dusts him with a feather duster at one point. My perception of Steed in this series is that he can come across as a bit of a dirty old man at times, and there's much less of that in this episode. Steed and Mrs Peel drive off in wildly differing cars at the end, signifying different approaches to technology.
Steed, however, is the one who makes what he describes as 'skeleton keys' to United Automation by cutting around the appointment card he already has. He is not afraid to use technology, or even abuse it, to the extent of tapping on an unprogrammed cybernaut's face. Perhaps this is as a result of living in a post-James Bond world but I personally would have been afraid to step into the lift for the second time! Ironically when Mrs Peel arrives at United Automation she is much more wary of the technology but till gets into the lift... Of course Steed also uses the technology - of the pen - at the end to destroy another technology - the cybernaut in the denouement.
The locus for the baddie in this episode is quite interesting - despite a procession of likely suspects, many of them (whisper) foreign, it is actually quite straightforward. Armstrong perceives that he was rejected by the ministry, the ministry decided he had to go since he is plainly a liability, and he has gone to the bad. Technology is not really the enemy in this episode, the real enemy is a man who goes to the bad and uses technology to the wrong ends. The establishment has to be defended because *we* know how to use technology safely, and won't try to rule the world with it. Except when we do.
A weakness of this episode, I feel, is that it has too many familiar actors, which distracts from the actual plot of the episode, since one is always thinking 'Isn't that...?' I don't like the scene when Steed runs his umbrella round the ribbed surface inside the lift. I know this is endearing to a lot of fans, but Steed is a gentleman and I just feel he wouldn't do that. I also think I've identified why I don't take to the cybernauts story arc - all of the things I've described - the clash of cultures, etc - are bang up my street, but this episode is let down by the technology being of its time. I don't mean the fictional cybernaut and pen technology, but I feel the episode is unduly dated by including the real punch card technology of the time. If I was watching this in the 1960s it would no doubt have added an element of verisimilitude, but it has caused the episode to date badly.
I feel of the three cybernauts Avengers episodes this is the one where the cybernauts themselves work best. They are much more convincing in blacks and greys, and would perhaps have been better for being redesigned to make them look more convincing in the colour episodes. I do love some of the completely Avengers touches on this one, such as the engineer cybernaut wearing a completely unnecessary flat cap, what becomes a recurring theme of pushing over the cybernaut!
So all in all a mixed verdict from me. Certainly blogging about this episode has helped me both appreciate it more and understand why I don't really take to it. More on the cybernauts anon...

2 comments:

Mike Doran said...

Message from Chicago:

This was the first episode of The Avengers to appear on US television in prime time, on the ABC network in the spring of 1966.

The Avengers had gotten a semi-serious write-up in the American TV Guide about a year previously; it was mainly about the Honor Blackman episodes (the black leather outfits in particular), with much about Patrick Macnee's long stay in the USA prior to coming back for this.
Robert Musel, TV Guide's man in London, wrote largely about how the British public wasn't sure about whether to take The Avengers seriously or as a send-up; Musel left that question open.

Reading the article in Chicago in '65 (I was a teenager at the time), I thought that this was another English show that I'd never get to see here (not long after I had a similar reaction to an article about Til Death Do Us Part; little did I know ...).

American ABC expressed interest in The Avengers, contingent on the production switching from the British 408-line tape (incompatible with the 525-line US system) to film. This was accomplished, and The Avengers had its US debut in the spring of '66, on the same network that had just launched Batman (Coincidence? You decide ...).

The Hammer horror films were big in the USA about this time, which may explain why ABC chose an episode that featured Michael Gough in the main guest role - but that might also be a coincidence ...

1966 was the year that black-and-white television went dormant in the USA, as far as new production was concerned; The Avengers was among the last few B&W shows to air regularly in prime time, and the producers got the word: if they wanted an American pickup, better go color - excuse me, colour - right away.

And the rest is History!

More later, if you like ...

John said...

Although of course the titles say 'The Avengers in Color'!
More later is great. Your contributions are very welcome so as mucb or as little as you like would be fine.