Friday, June 29, 2007

Review: The New Avengers on DVD

Review: The New Avengers on DVD. Vol. 1. (A&E, 2003)

By Wesley Britton

Without much question, if TV spy fans were polled and asked to choose one secret agent series that would be "the best," "most popular," or simply "classic" television, The Avengers would either head the lists or at least be in the Top Five in any category. In particular, the pairings of Patrick Macnee's Major John Steed with his leading ladies--Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, and Linda Thorson--remain the most frequently
Aired spy adventures and are the dramas most available on VHS and DVD.

However, rating the 1976-78 follow-up, The New Avengers, is another matter. In America, few aficionados ever saw the original broadcasts starring Patrick Macnee as Steed with new partners Purdee (Joanna Lumley) and Mike Gambit (Gareth Hunt). Much to the distress of the show's backers, CBS had opted to air the new episodes only late-night in competition against the then king of post-prime-time programming, Johnny Carson. In the years afterward, few viewers had much to remember the show by beyond the print overviews published by such Avengers experts as Dave Rogers and John Peel. In 1989, actress Joanna Lumley, the witty "Purdee" of the series, published her fond memories of her Avengers days in Stare Back and Smile (Viking). Such sources helped me assemble my own discussion of the show in my Spy Television (Praeger, 2004) along with my assortment of bootleg videos gathered at various conventions and antique fairs. But such publications and collector's items were of interest primarily for diehard fans but of little inspiration for the general public.

Now, with the first set of New Avengers DVDs, perhaps it's time to investigate the series anew, to see if a show seemingly so disappointing in its first appearance can reach a fresh audience in the 21st century. Are The New Avengers worth rediscovering in their new format? Was this simply a series that suffered in comparison with its namesake or should it be relegated to the artifacts of minor TV spy efforts?

The Avengers as a Trio

To begin, I felt it only fair to watch the first 13 episodes of The New Avengers on DVD largely disregarding the title. If there's one truism about the show that's hard to debate, it's that the 1970s incarnation of John Steed and his new partners worked in a far different world than the best loved escapades of the Peel-King years. As I observed in Spy Television:

"For one matter, the feel of the show had lost most of the elements that gave the original series its flavor. Gone were the surreal, over-the-top bad guys. Gone were the quaint backwater British villages. In the original series, Steed’s garb and cars were anachronistic, and Peel and King wore and drove their own unconventional fashions and stylized sports cars. But the realism of the new team would ultimately make this series look more dated than its predecessor. Its emphasis on topical issues such as drugs also dates the series in an era not fondly remembered for its fashions or artistic milieu. By design, the opponents were far too believable, at least by 1970s standards . . . To a large extent, the original show had drawn viewers into a mythological England which is precisely the element giving those episodes the timelessness they continue to enjoy. With the loss of quirky local color and surprising supporting characters, The Avengers were out of sync with what had made them unique. Producer {Brian} Clemens, with the help of original Avengers scriptwriter Dennis Spooner, felt these changes were needed as audiences were more sophisticated. He saw no sense in repeating what had already been done."

So, just as Laurie Johnson's New Avengers title music began with the strains of his original Avengers theme before jumping into the percussive march composed for the new series, let me quickly observe a few notable connections between the shows of the two decades before looking at The New Avengers on their own terms. First, the single lynchpin that mattered was the role of Patrick Macnee's Major John Steed. From 1961 to 1969, Steed had progressed from a character who'd been created largely to play second-fiddle to series lead Ian Hendry to becoming a pop culture icon impossible to imitate. As others have noted before, the Steed in The New Avengers wasn't the Steed fans remembered. Instead, he played a respectable gentlemen leading his private team while maintaining contacts at the highest levels. But as this Steed no longer cavorted in anachronistic clothes with his trademark eccentricities, the character could have been
any seasoned mentor for younger agents. Any English actor of Macnee's generation could have played the role with few changes in scripts or characterization.

Occasional nods to the past were fleeting, as in one scene when Steed mistook one lady friend's interest in photos which he thought were of his three favorite horses. In fact, the lady was looking at pictures of Cathy Gale, Emma Peel, and Tara King.

Beyond this comic moment, in the first 13 episodes, only two adventures were overt nods to the past, and these were two of the best. "The Last of the Cybernauts" was an episode in which the robot-men Steed and Peel had battled twice in the old days were reactivated one more time. This comeback inspired frequent mentions of the old adventures as Mike Gambit admonished Purdee about her reluctance to even mention Mrs. Peel. Unlike other villains in The New Avengers, the wheelchair-bound Caine wearing masks with different expressions was memorable, the best--or the worst--mad man in this DVD set. A more oblique reference to the past occurred in "To Catch A Rat" when the actor who played the original Avenger, Dr. David Kiel, returned. In this case, Ian Hendry didn't play his old character but instead another agent who had been out in the cold for 17 years. In the final moments, Macnee was able to say, "It's been 17 years, but welcome back." While few modern viewers might be aware of this inside joke, the script and acting of this hour make it one of the best of the batch.

Beyond these two outings, looking at The New Avengers as essentially a series unto itself is simple enough. True, "Sleeper," a yarn about bandits who put all of London to sleep with only the three heroes awake to foil them, was a plot already used in the Steed-King season. The final episode of the first DVD set, "Dirtier by the Dozen," was about the two younger agents infiltrating a private army of mercenaries. This was another situation well-trodden in the original series, not to mention other '60s shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the Saint. Had an ounce of originality been injected into the scripts, re-working these old devices could have had their points of interest. Beyond the witty rebuffs of Purdee to Gambit and secondary characters alike, there's not much to mark these retreads as anything special.

In my view, "Cybernauts," the fourth aired episode, was the first to show any flair at all. The series debuted with "The Eagle's Nest," a story with an old but intriguing twist. A plane of Nazi's, fleeing in the last days of World War II, had crashed onto a British island where the Germans had taken over a monastery, preserved "Germany's greatest treasure"--the frozen body of Adolf Hitler--and planned on a comeback. In typical Avengers style, this hidden army had unusual killers, in this case soldiers expert in using fishing lines to snag escapees and spies. But this premise fell flat. The second outing, "The Midas Touch," featured a killer infected with a deadly virus he conveys by touch. Again, a premise on paper didn't come alive on the small screen.

As the series progressed, there were occasional moments that spiced up the storylines. In "Cat Amongst the Pigeons," a story about a badguy able to control birds made overt and subtle references to Alfred Hitchcock's film, The Birds. Had Hitchcock only known--killer birds are no match for the ordinary housecat. Alongside "Cybernauts," another standout hour is "Target," a clever tale about agents killed on a target range by mysterious pinpricks that infect both Steed and Purdee. But, in the main, all the other episodes, from "House of Cards" to "The Tale of the Big Y," are about ordinary secret agents and counter-agents with little twists that make them more detective stories than spy adventure. On the other extreme, we get "To Catch a Rat" in which the enemy is a giant rodent roaming around London sewers. Viewers, then and now, are more likely to know what's going on long before our heroes do. Had such a script been played with a tongue-in-cheek tone, maybe, maybe, this might not have been among the worst hours in the secret agent genre.

But we're supposed to take this stuff seriously, and that's the central problem with The New Avengers. Modern viewers would likely have never heard of this show if it had been called anything else. If Brian Clemens felt audiences of the '70s were more sophisticated, then those in the 21st century are even more so. Given a choice between Sidney Bristo and Purdee, I suspect Sidney would win every bout, even without the quips that make Joanna Lumley's impudent feminist the best aspect of a show without focus or fresh tone.

While no one is likely to follow my advice, The New Avengers seems a series that would be better presented in a "Best of" collection offering the most successful episodes. Four DVD sets are to complete the run, and on each there will be two or three nuggets indeed worthy of new appreciation. But how many collectors will find themselves wanting or needing the entire series with so many hours of rather mundane and ordinary encounters? On video, there were collections of "the best of" the original Avengers which whetted the appetites for having the entire series issued and rightly so. The Saint and The Wild Wild West have also been offered in such VHS collections, both series worthy of being available on DVD from first to last. But lesser productions of interest shouldn't be dismissed outright but instead offered anew in less comprehensive form. Adding new features, particularly interviews with producers and actors, would add value to these collections, but none are on set 1 of this series.

True, The New Avengers have their supporters. I know of one fan who saw this series in the '70s before even hearing about the original. For him, Mike Gambit was a childhood hero and the concept of three agents working together makes the pairings of Steed and one partner seem a bit thin. For other fans, John Steed in any context is better than no Steed. Nostalgia is always one key factor in marketing old material, so there are those who'll grab up the New Avengers collections just as many of us await other TV memories to find their way into the DVD library. For the most part, however, The New Avengers is for completists only. Knowledgeable folks may pick and choose from future sets to have the episodes they know are of special interest, such as "K is for Kill," the two-parter with a short Diana Rigg cameo. Still, I suspect few viewers who aren’t already predisposed to this show will find it worthwhile to find much new in The New Avengers.

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Biff said...

Thank you for your review of The New Avengers. I must, however, very strongly urge you to watch the second season DVD's. In the second season, the producers came to their senses (much like in the early Avengers, they discovered that the fans wanted more Steed) and realized that fans were watching the series for Steed. In the second season, the episodes are Steed-focused. I guess unfortunately for Gambit fans, his character played a lesser role, while the relationship (and humor) between Purdey and Steed was highlighted. Steed became the center of each episode (rightly so), which brought back much of the humor and quirkiness we expected. Patrick Macnee shined and we loved it (and him). There's a second season episode called "Dead Men Are Dangerous" which taught us much about Steed's past. It was sort of a Steed's "The Joker", something that had been missing until then. Macnee deserved an Emmy for it. The script was great and he was brilliant. It's more Steed than we had ever seen before. So, please, watch the second season New Avengers episodes before making up your mind. Thanks for listening.

Biff said...

For the ladies, I forgot to mention that in the second season of The New Avengers, Patrick Macnee came back lean and healthy and looking as handsome, if not moreso, than ever. He laid off the hair dye, lost a ton of weight, and just generally looked wonderful. One more thing, for original Avengers quirkiness and fun, watch "Forward Base", one of the NA episodes set in Canada. I'll stop now. Thanks again for listening.

Unknown said...

I have always been a loyal Avengers fan. So of course, I always thought Patrick McNee was great as John Steed. As far as the New Avengers series went,I thought Mike Gambit and Purdee were great characters. Yes, some of the stories were a bit thin, but the actors and their characters were ALWAYS fun to watch. Their interactions and humor were the best part of the shows. Some of the stories were great as well, even if they were sort of a rehash of earlier stories. Emma Peel stuck in the crazy house, and Purdee in the building that was run by a computer. These are two of my favorite episodes. Going back a way in time, the Honor Blackman episode "Build A Better Mousetrap", is my favorite "Miss Gale" episode. What can I say, Patrick McNee will always be one of my favorite TV actors. I was sad to learn of his passing.