John Steed switches partners almost as often as Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger.
Our reviews of The Avengers 1964 Set 2 (published March 24th, 2000), The Avengers ('64) Set 1 (published February 20th, 2000), and The Avengers: The Complete Emma Peel Megaset (Collector's Edition) (published February 28th, 2006) are also available.
"Perhaps you've noticed: I'm not a gentleman."—Cathy Gale
With all due respect to Venus Smith and Dr. Martin King, the real draw during the 1962 episodes of The Avengers is Cathy Gale. The Avengers Forever website calls Cathy Gale "the first feminist on television." Her pluck, attitude, and capable demeanor ignited the show and provided an energy lacking in the episodes featuring Steed's other two partners during the year.
Facts of the Case
John Steed (Patrick Macnee) continues his crusade against devious crimes and diabolical masterminds. With a carousel of partners at his disposal, he confronts mysteries with impeccable style and a cunning mind. His partners include Dr. Martin King (Jon Rollason, Danger Man), a comely doctor with a bit of detective mixed in; Venus Smith (Julie Stevens, Carry On Cleo), a lounge singer pressed into service by Steed; and Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman, Goldfinger), an agent as tough as Steed who is quick with a sharp comeback or a judo throw.
The year 1962 takes us through these fine episodes:
There's no beating around the bush: The Avengers '62 has its fair share of bad news. Fear not, there is good news too; but let's get the bad out of the way.
The first thing you'll notice is the abysmal, rock-bottom, "everything must go!" condition of the audio and video. The Avengers was shot on tape in those days, and time has not been kind. If you can imagine a flaw, it is probably here. Poor contrast? Bad splices? Black lines? Blooming, halos, and smears? All here, and more. It is difficult to tell what is happening in some scenes. I have no doubt that this is the best record left of the show. Tapes were usually destroyed in those days, and the miracle is that the episodes exist at all. Even so, I'm stunned at the dramatic drop in quality from what I saw on The Avengers: The Complete Emma Peel Megaset.
The audio is even worse, with a hot, scratchy mix that pops, drops out, and crackles on a regular basis. For some reason, the audio and visual problems don't always synch, so there are periods of relatively clean video with wretched sound and vice versa. Again, I'm not sure there's anything to be done about it, but the fact remains that The Avengers '62 is a poor audiovisual experience.
The extras include a photo gallery and…umm…a photo gallery.
This set also suffers by comparison to The Complete Emma Peel Megaset in ways beyond technical. The Emma Peel years had something 1962 does not have: consistency. The 1962 season swaps partners like kids might swap marbles. Steed goes back and forth between the three without rhyme or reason. Worse still, the episodes themselves were shot and shown in different order. The King episodes were shot first but shown near the end, while Cathy Gale is introduced a couple episodes after we've first seen her. Between figuring out who Steed's partner will be, and why, and where in the space-time continuum the episode belongs, your brain might have difficulty actually paying attention to the plot.
If the partners were electric, that might not be a problem, but they aren't all. King is okay, a tepid character with a pretty face who doesn't leave much of an impression. He has stand-in written all over him. His lot is preferable to Venus Smith's, though. Steed wanders into a bar during "The Decapod," finds a pretty girl, and talks her into sneaking into a dangerous foreign embassy under false pretenses. This scenario is inexplicable for many reasons. First, it ignores the perfectly suitable, and much more capable, Cathy Gale. It makes Steed look like a bastard—and, worse yet, a dumb bastard. Venus herself is demure and bland by comparison to Gale, though I can't be sure whether writing or Julie Stevens's routine acting is the culprit. The bad taste that her introduction left in my mouth colored every Venus Smith episode.
The video and audio woes, the intermittent reinforcement schedule, and the annotated timeline you'll need in order to make sense of this season join forces to make The Avengers '62 fully worthwhile only for true Avengers fans.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you're in that group, the set has plenty to offer.
The set starts off with a bang in "Mr. Teddy Bear," an episode about a cunning assassin who uses gadgets to do his killing. His quirky intellect and fastidious sense of privacy make Mr. Teddy Bear a particularly challenging target. This is good because the challenge provides a perfect foil for Gale's introduction. Honor Blackman debuts with some episodes already filmed, but the first of her the audience sees is a perky blonde with a bad attitude who walks into a killer's lair with guns blazing. What a bracing introduction! Out of nowhere comes television's first feminist, a woman whose abilities and disdain for Steed are equal to that of a man's. She rues his Phoenix-like rebirth with a frustrated "Why aren't you dead?" In short, Gale hits the ground running and sets the stage for Emma Peel's subsequent feminist spin.
Though King is nondescript, the closing episode of this season is anything but. "Dead on Course" is a chilling take on airline espionage that still rings true today. From the body count and firefights to the character-based mysteries, "Dead on Course" is twisty and tense throughout. The nunsploitation angle doesn't hurt.
As bookends, "Mr. Teddy Bear" and "Dead on Course" nail the larger-than-life tone that distinguishes The Avengers. The Emma Peel era would cement it, but the 1962 episodes show a definite maturation into the defining Avengers vibe of witty repartee, high fashion, and diabolical plots. The episodes sandwiched in the middle sporadically evidence this theme. Episodes like "The Decapod" and "Death of a Great Dane" are uninspired hashes of generic plots. "Bullseye" and "Death Dispatch," on the other hand, are fine examples of the show's wit, tension, and thrilling sense of intrigue.
I'm sure that Honor Blackman's wardrobe has nothing to do with it. Well, that's an obvious lie, so let's drop the pretense. Blackman is red hot. She was hot then, she's hot now. Steed has his day in the sun too, even stripping to his skivvies in one episode. In short, The Avengers '62 is a saucy little show.
I found its anachronistic quirks endearing as well. If you watch closely, you'll find myriad flubs, missteps, and other errors. People mumble lines, drop things, knock into lamps, et cetera. Maybe editing was too expensive back then, or the schedule was tight, but for whatever reason the filming seems fresher with these errors kept in.
Cathy Gale is a groundbreaking character, and Honor Blackman made the best of it. It is no wonder that Blackman went on to create the most memorable Bond Girl of all time, nor that The Avengers went on to enduring success. This set is marred by truly bad video and audio quality, has no substantive extras, and plays a crazy game of musical partners. The casual television fan will find it tough going, while fans of the show or sixties spy television in general will find enough gold to warrant a purchase.
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