The New Avengers Season 1 Eps 4 - 6


`The Last of the Cybernauts…?` starts a year ago with a high octane sequence that is pure Brian Clemens culminating in a double agent called Felix Caine being chased and seemingly burned alive when his car crashes into an oil tanker, the sort of oil tanker often found lurking near the scene of car chases! This all happens on Steed’s birthday by the way- his cake says Happy Birthday Steed so they are not giving any clues as to his age.

Twelve months later a man called Frank Goff (and once I’d heard this name I kept thinking it was Frank Bough!) is released from prison only to be brought to a lair where Caine, who is very much alive albeit horribly mutilated, is planning revenge. His first step has been to have giant photos and carboard cut-outs of Steed, Purdey and Gambit made. His second is to coerce Goff to locate and reactivate the Cybernauts, rather clunky metallic robots who featured in two episodes of the Sixties Avengers. Then he dispenses with Goff and finds a professor (Yes! A fourth episode in a row with a Professor!) to develop Cybernaut technology to enable them to walk and become invincible enough to kill our three heroes.

The story is shaping up to be bizarrely watchable before Caine’s plan fully unfolds and the Cybernauts are shoved to one side. Caine, played with scenery chewing relish by Robert Lang under various stick on faces, decides he wants to personally kill the three rather than send a powerful robot to do it. The sequences of the Cybernauts in action are really well directed and sound effects help to make them appear a deadly enemy. Unlike Doctor Who’s similar looking Cybermen they really do seem metallic as well. However, Caine’s own Cybernised sequence where he attacks Purdey is accidentally amusing and nowhere near as well choreographed. The episode lacks the verve of the first three with the lines penned for Purdey and Gambit slipping into embarrassing Carry On style dialogue rather than witty banter. A running gag where an agent called Tom Fitzroy keeps getting knocked out works rather better.

A change of pace for `To Catch A Rat` as writer Terence Feely delivers a less action oriented espionage mystery that begins in 1960 with the search for a double agent known as the White Rat. Undercover as a circus trapeze artist of all things Irwin Gunner is determined to find this traitor only to be let fall during a rehearsal which results in sixteen years of amnesia. A chance bump on the head re-awakens him to his mission as he seeks out the now older former agents he worked with. From the start this episode has a different atmosphere to the arch tone adopted so far. It is unusual in many ways; the Sixties style incidental music, the seriousness of the characters and the way Feely weaves the narrative to lead us to suspect at least three people are the White Rat. It is also different in that the episode’s `villain` is in fact a good guy just trying to unearth a spy in the midst of the government. Feely uses recurring motifs and double bluffs to keep matters fresh from start to end.

The episode is richly lathered in spy thriller traits of old like dusty files, trying to trace telephone calls, country locations and code names. Yet it is played with an earnestness by the cast which adds a tension to proceedings. The aesthetic is shadowy when agents confront each other and director James Hill adds maximum value with his choices. There’s a notable lack of the shrill music that has peppered other episodes and it demonstrates that if the plot is engaging enough you can get just as much tension from someone entering a building. When the gags are played they work well because they’re more sparingly used- one in a church lands very well.

Ian Hendry returns to the series he used to front when it started in the early Sixties which adds an interesting angle to his guesting here as Gunner. He is very effective in the role of a man struggling to regain his primary aim treating the role with the earnestness of a stage play. There’s strong support too from Edward Judd whose distinctive voice was well known in the Seventies for the “Think Bike` advert and who had starred in the 1964 film First Men In the Moon. He plays Cromwell who tries to woo Purdey in scenes that work better than they should. Another familiar face is Barry Jackson, later the pathologist on Midsomer Murders.

There’s still space for some jocular, suggestive exchanges but it’s more contained and doesn’t become dominant. Even the main trio have a slight change of tone for this episode with Steed being more business like and urgent as they try and find Gunner. All in all this is a superb episode that shows the series’ potential to the fullest extent.

Writer Dennis Spooner and director John Hough are on scintillating form for `Cat Among the Pigeons` in which an atagonist can control birds sending them on suicide missions to kill off scientists who are proposing a necessary cull. It’s a real slice of atmospherics in which every camera move, every scene and each incident is perfectly executed along with a soundtrack that adds even more to the mix. We’re in a realm of dense woods, elegant country houses and a villain’s birdhouse lair. Even the incidental music seems to sometimes echo Jaws famous throbbing menace though as this was made around the same time its probably an unlikely coincidence. Real birds are mixed with sound effects while sharp editing and clever camera tricks make you really believe that people are being attacked by birds. Sometimes Hough uses shadows, other times the editing matches the frenetic nature of the supposed attack. We see just enough to make it all convincing, there is no evidence of someone waving a fake bird here!

Added to this you have a cast who give it all the seriousness it needs led by Vladek Shaybel as the seemingly blissed out villain Zarcadi whose woozy logic and causally threatening air give him the appearance of a James Bond villain, an image accentuated by a wicker seat topped off with bird feathers. Matthew Long is excellent as the detective Turner whose refusal to share information with the Avengers leads to his eventual death from fright. And he does look terrified. There are cameos too from a melee of familiar UK television character actors of the day- Kevin Stoney, Peter Copley, Basil Dingham and Gordon Rollings.

The story musters just enough credulity to remain on the right side of believable with Spooner presumably having done some research into how birds can be affected by sounds and then exaggerating it for fictional fun. Zacardi’s motivation is given some heft so while he’s clearly unhinged he has his reasons. Spooner’s script is economical - the second episode in a row where the Avengers’ quips are paired back.

The only slight flaw is the ending whose comedic resolution (Steed and Gambit turn up to rescue Purdey with boxes of cats) somewhat clashes with the harder edge so far. The cats also look too timid by half. Then Zacardi leaps out of window despite the fact he’s shown no signs till now of actually believing he can fly. An appropriate demise perhaps but it feels a bit off. Nonetheless this is a cracking episode which shows that the series seems to be finding it’s mojo after a mixed start.

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