Our review of The New Avengers '77, published September 1st, 2004, is also available.
Come back, Emma Peel. All is forgiven.
The spy, at least in his media oriented presentation, is one bifurcated bloke. There is the debonair playboy agent, quick-witted, slightly inebriated, and almost always looking for a little feminine companionship. He represents espionage at its most jet set and swinging. So urbane that he barely wrinkles his tux when he engages in battle and constantly dousing his thirst in spirited beverages, he feels no pain as he causes untold injury. And there's always a witty bon mot at the struggle's end (something along the lines of "that should keep them bottled up at the home office" or "I said with a twist"). But just like the cold that a certain covert contact came in from, there is a frightfully frigid entity in the entire secrets exchange game, something that only recently has been explored and rewarded. In these dark, brooding bits of foreboding, the noir agent is a torn and twisted near-psychotic, identity so jumbled from a thousand undercover gigs that they barely know who they are anymore. Instead of shagging a bird, they're dragging on a long-ashed butt and hoping to clear their head of that sour gin throb before they fetch their vomit stained suit from off the rusting radiator and venture out into the brisk evening to try and keep the world from going nuclear. Indeed, the plutonium phase of stealth has made spies no god-dang fun whatsoever. They are gloomy Guses just hoping not to be "ventilated" so they can crawl out from the sewers, Harry Lime style, and into the light of…well, anything would be better than the lonely, still liquid life they lead.
So where does John Steed fall into all of this: gentleman, estate owner, able to defeat criminals with a Beefeater martini and the handle of his "veddy British" umbrella, he has all the markings of the cad as operative and yet, there is a very sad, very shadowy nature to who he is. While he and the other Avengers toddled around London looking for all manner of mod mad-hatters, he always seems a snifter away from short-circuiting. The New Avengers, an update of Steed's adventures that shifted his pinstripes from 1960s Carnaby Street to mid-'70s lackluster somewhere, tries to recapture the hip but only manages to hurt. Available on DVD, it's a clear indication that, somewhere along the line, Steed and company stopped caring and took the piss…and the money.
Facts of the Case
Fans may remember that at the end of its run in 1969, John Steed and The Avengers blasted off into space aboard a homemade rocket ship. Perhaps out of a need for a more regal send-off, or just a general desire to placate the faithful with cooler cultured spy fun, The New Avengers was unveiled in 1976. It had that familiar face and similar premise, but offered a faux-fresh, decidedly different attitude. Indeed, The New Avengers added a younger male lead—the shadowy stud Mike Gambit—to take John Steed's aging place in most of the rip-snorting adventures. Oh course, no Avenger series would be complete without a sexy, leggy she-spy to match wits and roundhouse kicks with the men. In this case, the tall disco diva is Purdey, a lethal weapon in womanly guise. With her charms and ability to harm, she is the final piece in the Avengers' renewed strategy.
The show lasted for two seasons, from 1976 to 1978. This DVD presentation from A&E represents the full first season—thirteen 50-minute episodes on four discs. The installments offered (with a number score) are:
"The Eagle's Nest": A group of rather odd monks commits crimes and defends their isolated island from intruders with poisoned fishing poles (?). When the Avengers investigate, it turns out that these men of the cloth are Nazis and they've kidnapped a famous cryogenic scientist to help them "revive Germany's greatest treasure." Score: 85
"The Midas Touch": A madman with a penchant for gold decides to create the ultimate killing machine: a debonair hunk filled with every imaginable disease but who is himself immune to them all. One touch, one kiss, and you're dead. It's up to the Avengers to keep this creep from "getting physical" with a visiting princess. Score: 83
"House of Cards": A Russian spy chief fakes his death and then begins a diabolical plan to kill off Steed and his fellow Avengers. Seems that years before, our Soviet sneak planted several "sleepers" around the agents and with a simple message—the severed section of a playing card—they are off on their murderous mission. Score: 80
"The Last of the Cybernauts…?": It's robot time as the Avengers take on a army of automatons bent on destroying them. And who is behind this devilish device plot? Why, a badly disfigured fiend who wants revenge for the fiery car crash makeover Steed and the gang once gave him. Score: 88
"To Catch a Rat": A long dormant agent gets his memory back and realizes that he knows the identity of "The White Rat," a high ranking double agent. As he tries to make contact with the Avengers, forces hoping to shut him up once and for all hound him. This includes a high-ranking member of the ministry with a secret to hide. Score: 81
"Cat Amongst the Pigeons": A bird-loving lunatic devises a special call that sends his feathered friends into a murderous frenzy. When government environmentalists threaten the fowl population, he sends his winged recruits into action. It's up to the Avengers to salt his tail (and their tale) before the killing escalates. Score: 80
"Target!": After passing their rigorous shooting range training, many members of the spy corps end up dead. Turns out a deranged defector wants the Avengers and their ilk dead, and has set up the test guns with poisoned pellets. When Purdey and Steed are hit, it is up to Gambit to find the antidote before it is too late. Score: 85
"Faces": A psychotic plastic surgeon with a strange agenda finds derelicts that resemble famous government faces in local flophouses. A nip and tuck later and the doubles are switched with their real life counterparts. Purdey and Gambit infiltrate the racket to keep the Avengers from being the next doppelganger dupes. Score: 85
"The Tale of The Big Why": When an ex-con with a secret leaves prison, Purdey and Gambit follow him to discover what he's hiding. But before they can unravel the mystery, the man ends up dead and Purdey is kidnapped. If Steed can't figure out the fallen felon's facts, his leggy compatriot might end up the same way. Score: 77
"Three Handed Game": A crazy criminal mastermind develops a device that allows him to absorb the memories and personalities of those around him. And he uses it to uncover sensitive, top secret government intelligence that he intends to sell to the top bidder. The Avengers must stop him…that is, if they too can avoid the brain drain. Score: 78
"Sleeper": When the spy agency develops a new sleeping gas, it's not long before it is stolen and used by criminals in an elaborate citywide robbery scheme. But the Avengers have been inoculated against its effects and are the only ones left awake to stop the thieves from getting away with it. Score: 81
"Gnaws": Radiation from a government lab seeps into the London sewer system and a few months later, workmen start disappearing. A seismic readout indicates something huge is roaming around underground. Gambit and Purdey discover that Mother Nature has been monstrously altered: they meet up with a giant killer rat! Score: 80
"Dirtier by the Dozen": Without a proper war to fight in, a rogue British military officer develops his own private, loyal army and sells his killing skills to the highest bidder. But when he kidnaps a general as part of an elaborate scheme to start World War III, it is up to the Avengers to rescue the officer and ease the potential tensions. Score: 75
Removed from its origins and hoping to stand on its own as a rightful successor to the name and nature of the beloved undercover confection, The New Avengers is a strange, strained example of revisiting something that only barely worked right once before. This is not to say that the shows in this A&E box set are dull or derivative. Actually, a certain amount of invention has gone into rehabilitating Steed and his organization of top-secret emissaries to make it more current and in tune with popular sentiments. That is why we see Purdey as less of a leer object and more of an able-bodied investigator, doing much more of the dirty work than Steed can (age issues) or Gambit could (personality defect). Now people loved the old Avengers because the outright chauvinism and paternal instincts in the setup were constantly undercut by Diana Riggs' Emma Peel—a fierce female known for taking names and high kicking ass. True, Macnee's John Steed was a cultured force to be reckoned with, but he preferred wining and dining just about any wench who saw their way into his rapscallion radar. A great deal of his heroics was accidental. But it was Emma, with her cat suit karate chops and razor sharp sensibilities, who turned this televisual James Bond into a radical reworking of the entire "bed and no breakfast" spy story. Add a few Wild Wild West style arch villains completely removed from reality and a fashionable mod happening atmosphere, and there was no way The Avengers couldn't be a success (even when other sexy sidekicks surrounded our man Steed).
But the same theory has a fatal flaw here, one that comes up over the course of the 13 episodes offered. The New Avengers is so aware of the past it has to overcome that it resorts to conventions that really have no place within a show like this. Throughout the four discs of the first season, you see storylines shift from the realistic to the downright cartoon-like, guest stars shuffled in and underused, and radical tone modifications that jar and shake you like fifty minutes on the Mad Mouse at the local county fair midway. By the end of Disc Three, the problems seem ironed out and the episodes hum with a professional polish, but before you know it, it's time for more ridiculous ideas, half-baked scripts, and dissipating energy levels. And throughout it all, the terribly professional acting job done by the three leads helps to bolster more than a few sordid sagas. Indeed if it wasn't for the good work done by Patrick Macnee, Joanna Lumley, and (to some extent) Gareth Hunt, The New Avengers would be almost intolerable (just like a certain movie a few years back starring an oddly out of place Ralph Fiennes and a sultry, static Uma Thurman). This kind of show needs a special thespian, able to lay a proper foundation of spy skill before battling the bad jokes and weak sexual statements. Thankfully, the Brits know a thing or two about proper casting.
With the debut episode for this New Avengers series opening Disc One, we find the initial show off to an inventive if ultimately weak beginning. It's not because it has so much to live up to. Indeed, "The Eagle's Nest" lays on the quirks (bad guys "casting" people to death, Nazi monks) and high-gloss guest star power (Peter Cushing doing his usual exceptional work) like the previous old pro. But the main problem with "The Eagle's Nest" is that Steed, while still the same suave spy, is now paired with two newbies—Gambit and Purdey—that we know little or nothing about. The arch way they try to introduce their characters (short bursts of dialogue, awkward exposition) in and amongst all the World War II paraphernalia undermines what is a fairly decent outing. Similarly, "The Midas Touch" wants to maximize Purdey's pouting lips and fashionable curves, but since we still are just getting a handle on who she is, it's hard for her to carry the show (no matter how good Joanna Lumley is). Still, the gold obsessed bad guy should remind a few fans of a certain ex-SNLer that while imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, outright theft is a crime (right, Goldmember?). The final episode, "House of Cards," is a fascinating if eventually flawed attempt at bringing all three Avengers together to work as a team to a common end. The problem with this is that Patrick Macnee steals every scene away from his fellow cast members (only Lumley is up to the challenge of matching him), and while the story has wonderful elements of intrigue and espionage, the lack of impact from his fellow undercover agents threatens to ruin it all.
Thankfully, Disc Two gets us right back on the wacky track by recalling the original series and updating it for the Me Decade. "The Last of the Cybernauts…?" is goofy, over-the-top mythology making fun, drawing on a pair of previous Avenger run-ins with robots to twist the camp factor up a few notches in the new series. You can feel the writers trying to create a new evil nemesis for Steed and the crew, and the surreal set designs and hammy acting by the lead bad guy more than makes up for the 1930s era tin man cyborgs. Many longtime fans hate this episode, but it does hit on a formula that The New Avengers could have used to stand out from most television trifle. Oddly, the next episode is a 360-degree turnaround, completely grounded in standard spy game realities. And it suffers by comparison. Too bad, really, because "To Catch a Rat" is a well-crafted television thriller that keeps you guessing up until the very end. Observant members of the audience will decipher the identity of the "mole" quickly enough, but there are more than enough red herrings tossed around to have you questioning your conclusion. As if to respond to the lack of strange shenanigans in the previous espionage offering, "Cat Amongst the Pigeons" re-imagines Hitchcock's The Birds for the small screen and almost survives the transition. The lack of special effects really hampers this episode, especially when we are supposed to create all the bird attacks in our mind's eye. But the overall directing and acting sell the aviary assaults, and by this time in the new series, Lumley and Gareth Hunt (as Gambit) are about ready to start clicking. You want to see more of them onscreen and they now complement, not compete with Macnee's Steed.
So it's no wonder that Disc Three's initial offering, "Target," is one of the best episodes in this first series collection. Innovative, interesting, action packed, and filled with more than enough suspense to satisfy your dread demands, the animated mannequin shooting range setting is perfectly realized and makes for an eerie, "around any corner" threat. At the very end, the plot seems to implode, but up until then this story has it all: active Avengers, real danger, unselfish camaraderie, and crooked plot twists. "Faces" follows up with another great, more character driven storyline. Some may scoff that this was nothing more than a chance for actors Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt to finally break free of Patrick Macnee's shadow and shine solo for themselves (the episode revolves around their characters going undercover). Both thespians acquit themselves admirably, but it's how they function within the confines of the story that makes this an intense, fulfilling offering. Too bad the disc has to end with the soggy, confusing "The Tale of Big Why." Unlike the previous two installments, this vague, devoid of fun confuse-a-thon is just not very well written or executed. It plays almost as if the creators felt compelled to circumvent standard good guy/bad guy conventions and make the final revelation an insignificant factor in the final analysis. While this would work if the script were more people-driven, the story here is filled with convolutions, open-ended questions and too much bait and switch to satisfy. "Targets" and "Faces" represent very clearly what this version of The Avengers could have been, had they decided to go serious. Too bad the lame-brain boredom of "Big Why" shows that even that concept had its pitfalls.
The mixed bag theory also rears its rhetorical head all over Disc Four. "Three Headed Game" starts out with an intriguing, complex premise (three spies, each given part of a code, repeat it to a single source who combines it to decipher the messages), but once the cerebral sieve is introduced (along with a very fey tap dancer), the story quickly degenerates. Basically, the Avengers are buffoons here, never once preventing the parties involved from having their thought patterns plundered, even when the means of achieving such mental mugging has to become more and more obvious. By the time a female agent is attacked by her own artwork (?), what could have been clever has turned dumb. "Sleeper" suffers from the same sensational set-up, weak wrap-up dilemma. Even with a premise as outrageous as putting all of London's banking district to sleep just to rob it, at least the reason for the Avengers being the only ones awake to stop the crime spree is rational and well-considered. But then they don't have much to do except run around and watch things getting blown up. Never once do they take their status as lone legal barrier between the booty and the bad guys seriously. Throughout most of the show they are more observers than participants. Fortunately, the ending is nicely executed, with a couple of intelligent turns that come as a complete surprise and makes the resolution a partial redemption of what came before.
Not knowing much about the show's success in its initial broadcast, the next episode "Gnaws" sure feels like an act of about-to-be-cancelled dire desperation. After all, since when does the dapper Steed have to slum around a sewer in pursuit of a gigantic radioactive mouse? Yet that is the outrageous basis for this installment of the spy saga and it is played so completely straight, without a cheeky tongue or wink to the audience that it's disconcerting. From the poorly accomplished rat POV shots to the final forced perspective and miniature work (got to admit it, though—the supersized rodent is really a hoot), this is just a pretty dumb episode that can only be enjoyed for its overt ludicrousness. And leave it to the first series to go out with a whimper, instead of a bang, with the exceptionally expositional talk-a-thon "Dirtier by the Dozen." It's hard to imagine an installment with more explosions, gunfire, fisticuffs, and all-out action being this dialogue heavy. Maybe it's the fact that the insane military man has absolutely no internal monologue. Everything he thinks—here's my plan…what is she up to…what's that wart…should the mess hall serve bangers and mash tonight—comes out of his mouth in rambling rants that are less of a character portrayal and more of a case of the vocal runs. At this point, Purdey is the featured asset of the show, and poor Gambit is exported into supporting position. All of which doesn't bode well for Season 2.
Indeed, it's the lack of triangular chemistry that makes The New Avengers so average. People remember the original series for its fanciful pairing of Macnee with various voluptuaries, not for their rock solid plotlines. The New Avengers also has some interesting tales to tell, but the constant careening of the actors from gracious to glacial undermines the kinship they (and we) are supposed to feel. Individually, it's a race between Macnee and Lumley for high honors, with the tie going the male way: Lumley is just too new at the whole spy girl game to warrant the kind of attention Macnee's Steed gets with a glance or wave of his umbrella. And you've got to love the bowler and three piece ensembles favored by the gentleman spy over Purdey's Kiki Dee meets polyester nightmares that scream Studio 54 seconds. But it's poor Gareth Hunt who suffers the most in The New Avengers. Really nothing more than that typical post-'60s ideal of male ruggedness (usually defined by a copious amount of dry look wavy hair) matched with some of Steed suave culture, and he's a void waiting to become a man. His attempts at double entendre tangoing with Purdey are silly and as a couple, they only have sexual magnetism when they are kicking communal butt. If the idea was to match Steed's well-aged charms with Gambit's brash animalism, it doesn't gel. The youth is just outmatched on all accounts by the old pro's many moves. And that's the case with most of The New Avengers. It's just a bunch of new concepts hurled at the screen that make you long for the classy classic version.
A&E's DVD presentation of this title is also a little inadequate. First, there are virtually no extras here, just a selection of screen shots—deceptively referred to as "galleries"—on each disc and an ad for The Avengers website. There are no interviews, no cast or crew filmographies, no attempt to explain how the show came back into being and why it eventually failed. As for the visuals, the picture is good, but well below average. The full screen transfer is soft, without any real crispness, and is rife with occasional clarity issues. As a filmed series from across the ocean, one expects a certain amount of flatness to the print, but the dull and lifeless image doesn't help spark a great deal of excitement. The sound is also odd. The opening musical theme is so over-modulated it sounds like a badly encoded MP3. You have to jack the volume down substantially to avoid it blaring directly into your middle ear. Then the regular episode sound is so low you have to hit the "up" switch again. The lack of proper mastering aside, there are no stereophonics for the Dolby Digital to highlight here. Overall, the dialogue is understandable and the musical scoring (except for that opening) unobtrusive. While one can imagine a far more digitally delectable presentation, what is here is perfectly acceptable for a mid-'70s foreign television series of limited interest.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Avengers is considered a classic by many TV fans, so the fact that A&E offers its re-invention in such a skimpy, undernourished package is a little disingenuous. It's almost as if the company realizes that very few cash registers will be ringing over this reissue and they aren't up to making this set anything better than cable broadcast quality. It's also possible that the source material was wanting. But in the end, DVDs are supposed to be a document for future generations to marvel at, to enjoy programs and cinema that would otherwise decompose and rot away. With The New Avengers preserved in this manner, at least there will be something saved, but so much could have been done with this set. Joanna Lumley is a regular superstar thanks to Absolutely Fabulous, and having her sit down to recount some of Purdey's more notorious secrets in a commentary track would have been nice. Gareth Hunt is still alive and kicking around the British TV industry. Surely he could have been interviewed about his time as an Avenger. And it's a crime that Patrick Macnee is not somewhere on this disc, discussing how he came back to the show that threatened to typecast him—in a good way—for all future roles. But no, we are stuck with a pathetic excuse for a DVD, bare bones and lacking even the slightest consideration for the creative forces behind the show and its fan base.
When viewed in light of what passes for spy stuff in today's modern media, The New Avengers looks about as high-tech as a cockney pearly king. Between Alias' angry young supermodel and 24's tainted agent with an attitude, if you're not incredibly irked and full of misplaced self-loathing, you really can't handle the intelligence assignments drop kicked to you like war rations to POWs. John Steed and his duo of dime store Diana Rigg replacements just can't work up the same groovy Tuesday afternoon mellow yellow paisley pop art that the original '60s series simmered like patchouli in a hookah. Instead, it's all over the map, like a high school senior's answers on a geography exam, and barely registers when it should supersaturate the synapses. The New Avengers is not a bad show, just a faded forced image of its previous glory. It has some fun moments and a couple of compelling actors, but the monochrome silhouette of a dashing man about town tipping his bowler hat along side a leggy lady in a skintight bodysuit and high heels will always belong to a certain era, one bathed in liquor and the light heart of innocence. Innocuous yet endearing on some levels, redundant but with a small sprite of originality, The New Avengers is a decent try at bringing back the much loved clandestine lush serving his country in a shot glass and between the sheets. Too bad that they forgot all the fun.
The New Avengers '76 is found guilty of memory mangling and is sentenced to two seasons of obscurity before it is sent back into the realms of non-syndicatable shows until such time as a career retrospective for one of its three leads is needed. A&E Entertainment is sentenced to five years hard labor for failing to provide respectable transfers and any tangible bonus material.
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