Thursday, 21 November 2013

The New Avengers Series 1: The Last of the Cybernauts...?

No doubt an occupational hazard of being a secret agent is the danger of retribution by your enemies, and the cybernauts story arc demonstrates this to perfection. I started off these three posts on the cybernauts by watching the three episodes back to back, which I thought would be a simple repeat viewing but I was surprised to find that this episode of The New AVengers was totally unfamiliar to me, although I must have seen it before because I know for a fact I have watched all the way through the New Avengers boxed set.
I don't dislike the New Avengers, myself: I feel there are a few major differences, often in production values, but if you dig you can find the old Avengers atmosphere running under the surface. These differences are admirably illustrated by the opening scenes of this episode. The flashback to a previous birthday of Steed's, followed by a car chase and then another birthday party, doesn't feel very Avengers at all. Nor does the car chase. Incidentally I love the relative economy with which older cars are used as the ones to receive the battering.
What is similar to the previous two episodes in the cybernauts story arc are the themes of memory, time, loyalty, and value. A merging of the past and the present (illustrated by Steed playing a Stylophone on a grand piano) overtakes the fear of the technological future which dominates the previous episodes. In a sense the technological future is already here, the point is that it must not get into the hands of the 'wrong' people.
So this episode shifts the emphasis slightly purely and simply to the themes of loyalty, time, and retribution. An air of verisimilitude (also picking up on themes in the Return of the Cybernauts) is given by the search for a specialist in cybernetics: this is not treated as strange or as something beyond the bounds of reality. The time theme is served by the fact that Dr Armstrong's cybernaut technology from a decade beforehand is revivified and reused in this episode. An interesting theme picked up from the original episode is that of the man in a wheelchair who nonetheless proves lethally dangerous.
The ambivalence of the previous episodes is picked up on, but turned into an ambivalence towards Felix Kane: we *should* feel sympathy towards someone in a wheelchair, in fact he says explicitly that the reason he wants retribution against the Avengers is that they have done something to him which made him half a man. Although we don't see it, it is plainly horrific. This picks up on and reinforces the ambivalence in the previous episode towards the steablishment: whatever they did, they must have done it for good reasons, and the man with the personal mission for revenge is obviously wrong on this. It is not developed why they did this to him, nor where this is supposed to leave him: presumably the Avengers had to do whatever they did to him because he was already doing something bad. I suppose the over-simplistic moral would be: two wrongs don't make a right. Interestingly he wants to perform the retributive act for himself, rather than send a cybernaut to do it, reinforcing the previous episodes' ambivalence towards technology. It seems as if he values humans over the cybernauts, which ought to elicit our sympathy, but actually he wants to do this for the wrong reason, that it won't be slow and painful enough if a cybernaut performs the action. His human sympathy is only on the surface, ensuring that if we have been taken in by him up till this point, we now lose sympathy for him, and instead our sympathies are elicited for The Avengers, whom we know don't go around causing pain purely for cruelty.
Some of the visual devices from the previous two episodes are re-used to great effect, the most obvious example being the cybernauts breaking in through doors again. Interestingly the pushing-cybernauts-over devise is resued but turned round by being applied to cut outs of the Avengers, and even by Steed on the man from the ministry. Purdey tries to shoot Kane at one point.
The theme of different approaches to technology amongst the Avengers themselves is also reused: Steed becomes the epitome of tradition, relatively speaking, because of the way he lives and his surroundings. Purdey's flat is frankly like being inside a headache. Gambit's flat is the one that is bang up to date - although how dated it looks now - I love the electric bed, used to great effect by Purdey. Incidentally the scene with Gambit in bed shows how differently actors have to look now: he looks like a normal person and has hair under his arm, rather than being ripped and waxed to Ken-doll perfection as he probably would be now.
Once again it is technology that causes the downfall of the cybernaut, in this case the application of plastic skin to him, causing his cybernaut technology to seize up.
What this episode does very well is to picture the cybernaut technology differently. One of the reasons the cybernauts did not picture well in colour was that they looked too obviously like people dressed up as robots, without the sinister look they got in black and white. Here, while there are plainly  people inside the cybernaut costumes, the cybernauts (when first shown) do not look the same as they did in the last episode, but are clearly more robotic, which is explained by them being the most advanced that Dr Armstrong ever used, presumably in development in the last episode. The cybernaut who takes the machine they need from Dr Mason's secret office looks less effective, as he looks like the cybernauts did in the last episode. It works very well also to use the cybernaut technology and attach it to a real person who will himself do the hurting.
I like Steed a lot in this: I like the wreckage of his house after the party and the way he tells his housekeeper to avoid the spare bedroom if she is of high moral fibre. He is unmistakably the old Steed, talking about his misspent youth, yet totally an establishment figure at the same time. Macnee somehow manages to do this without coming across as an old roue! The sexual chemistry of the show is entirely transferred to Purdey and Gambit. I don't object to this change of role for Steed at all - he does obviously still relate to women, it just feels different, more mature, and for the purposes of the story he was already getting into the role of an older, mentor figure in the Tara King series of The Avengers.
I end this review with somewhat mixed feelings, since I've wound up not disliking this story arc at all. I do actually like this episode a lot, but I think for probably a lot of the wrong reasons, since I tend to watch the New Avengers with different expectations from those I bring to the original Avengers. I watch The Avengers because it is The Avengers, I watch The New Avengers because it is a jolly romp down memory lane into the 1970s, much more the spirit with which I approach The Professionals, although as I said there are undertones of the old Avengers atmosphere to be found. I feel it was a mistake to carry on with the cybernauts theme beyond the original one: visually is didn't transfer well to colour, it feels just plain derivative. It would have been better being done differently, for example if the cybernaut technology was implanted in people so that the ineffective costumes were totally unnecessary. So from me a thumbs up for The New Avengers, but a thumbs down for the cybernaut theme, even though this episode is a good try at reusing material from previous series.

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