Though he didn't know it, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger had an Emma Peel-shaped hole in his soul.
"Always keep your bowler on in time of stress, and watch out for diabolical masterminds."—Emma Peel
When Diana Rigg ushered in Season Four with her perfect blend of sensuality and sophistication, did she single-handedly make The Avengers an international sensation? Or had the writers and producers simply hit their stride, allowing Lady Emma to waltz in and benefit from exquisite timing? Who cares! Here, in one gloriously heavy box, is all of the Emma Peel goodness that exists on this planet.
Facts of the Case
Covert trickster John Steed (Patrick Macnee, A View to a Kill) doesn't miss a beat when his former partner takes off to form Pussy Galore's Flying Circus. He rings the doorbell of Mrs. Emma Peel (Diana Rigg, On Her Majesty's Secret Service), a delectable woman with tea in one hand and a fencing foil in the other. After a bit of repartee, Steed and Peel set off to right the wrongs happening across Great Britain. One case at a time they face oddities and enemies, but always take it in stride.
This aptly named megaset includes the following discs spanning three seasons
of The Avengers:
The first thing you'll notice about this set—aside from its seasick-green color—is how huge it is. The promotional materials are quick to point out that this "17-disc Collector's Edition features all 51 digitally remastered Emma Peel episodes." As impressive as that may sound, it doesn't convey the sheer coolness of holding a brick of seventeen Thinpaks in your hands. (At least they are Thinpaks, and therefore not as massive as some of A&E's standard DVD cased sets.)
But scale and presentation will not convey to you the Anglophile's elation at having this specific block of episodes from this specific series gathered in one set. This '60s show—along with The Beatles and the James Bond films—ushered in a tide of Brit pop culture that has yet to ebb from the American scene. For many, John Steed and Emma Peel are the living embodiment of sophistication, humor, and intrigue.
Though I wasn't even a twinkle when The Avengers had its heyday, I have been a lifelong Beatles and James Bond fan. It was high time to check out the other side of the trifecta. After digging into this boxed set, I've concluded that The Avengers is to gritty spy flicks as flirting is to sex.
See, The Avengers isn't always grave or forbidding. In fact, it is downright campy. I wasn't expecting bloody deaths and sniper attacks, but assumed it would be less tongue-in-cheek. George Lucas once explained to Steven Spielberg that his imaginary adventurer Indiana Jones never lost his trademark fedora, and Spielberg immediately knew what kind of series Lucas was getting at. You'll probably get the gist of this show when I tell you that the Avengers are often on the wrong end of a gun, but the villains stop and bicker long enough to give our heroes time to knock the gun away. Like the cliffhangers that are never explained in serial Westerns, the thrilling conclusions in The Avengers are vague. How did John Steed escape four men and a steel trap in time to scoop Emma up onto his horse and ride away? Who knows? Imagery and vibe are more important than the facts.
And what a vibe! From fancy cars and haute couture to its steady stream of libations, The Avengers is saturated with '60s style of the highest caliber. Both Steed and Peel are impeccably dressed, from his bowler and jacket to her catsuits and mod dresses. The show misses no opportunity to vogue—or even to fetishize Mrs. Peel.
This focus makes the fight scenes anticlimactic. We rarely get to see exactly what is going on. The normal course of action is an oddly placed camera that captures a mayhem of spinning bodies and falling furniture. You might see a faux punch or two, but usually The Avengers is a mod ballet of action. The absolute worst fight scene of the lot is Emma's catfight with another lady in "The Murder Market," but it was actually Rigg's first episode. The fights improve, but not exponentially; I'm often reminded of the silly brouhahas from Batman. (I wanted to cheer when Emma finally shoots a scheming mastermind in "Too Many Christmas Trees.") The flip side of this nonsense is that it frees us entirely from worry or logic. Watching The Avengers is not a taxing affair.
In fact, the action takes second fiddle to the flirting. The Avengers get downright cheeky. Steed is full of innuendo, while Emma is both coy and aloof, hiding behind a sly smile or an upturned eyebrow. If Moneypenny donned a catsuit and accompanied Bond on his adventures, it might feel something like this. The two are consummate flirters, which they usually parlay into their espionage work.
Their banter is the result of fantastic writing (at least where the dialogue
is concerned). If The Avengers doesn't make you laugh out loud, you
aren't paying close enough attention. Double entendres flow from Steed's tongue
like fine wine, and Peel responds with honey-coated barbs of her own:
The writers work in a plethora of inside jokes. For example, in the cheerful holiday jaunt "Too Many Christmas Trees," which is a standout episode, Steed gets an assortment of Christmas cards. One of them is from Cathy Gale, his former partner (replaced when Honor Blackman went on to portray infamous Bond Girl Pussy Galore), which prompts Steed to wonder "What on Earth can she be doing in Fort Knox?" The writing is snappy enough that it holds up well even now. Rigg and Macnee deliver these words with such spark that it's no wonder their chemistry has endured for generations.
Chemistry makes the show, but this is the The Complete Emma Peel Megaset, after all. Let's focus on her a bit. Diana Rigg is a flawless woman. She's smart, sexy, beautiful, and talented. Men and women love her. Small wonder that her Mrs. Peel is the enduring legacy of The Avengers. Don't get me wrong, Macnee is plenty engaging, but Rigg is mesmerizing. She turns Emma Peel into a true icon of femininity. The show may be a ridiculous throwaway in some respects, but it is impossible to understate the immense impact that this daring female hero had on '60s audiences. When Emma single-handedly extracts herself from a custom-made trap in "The House That Jack Built," her triumph is Jungian in scope.
The Emma Peel era is not the only major shift immortalized in this set. The first two years (1965 and 1966) in The Complete Emma Peel Megaset are shot in black and white. These episodes take full advantage of monochrome cinematography; everyone involved was quite experienced in the nuances of black and white. The 1965-66 episodes are marked by moody chiaroscuro, pleasing contrast, and interesting textures. Though I've heard rumors (for example, some of DVD Verdict's early Avengers reviews) that the DVDs have disappointing video quality, there's no such worry with this set. The remastering must have done the trick, because most of the episodes in this set are impressively clear with a wealth of detail. Most of the footage is sharp, with modest digital noise reduction that mostly displays no side effects. Coloration pops up from time to time, especially among fine lines such as files in cabinets or shutters on buildings. Heavy edge enhancement mars a few scenes, but the amount of print damage in them suggests that the masters were in rough shape. Some episodes have focus problems, and the camera jars around from time to time. None of these issues detract from A&E's fantastic visual presentation.
Good thing, too, because the episode "From Venus With Love" brings The Avengers into glorious color. This major change is heralded when Steed walks from black and white shadows into a subtly colored sitting room. Emma sharpshoots the cork off a bottle of champagne, and the pair toasts with golden bubbles.
"From Venus With Love" is a rather weak episode to highlight this shift, though the special effects artists went full bore. The plot moves slower than molasses, with a shtick that grows old fast. Do lasers make noise? The episode feels like a prescient ancestor to The X-Files, with Steed investigating a well-heeled group of conspirators while Emma chases UFOs.
That said, the thrill of watching our heretofore black and white heroes in full color cannot be denied. These early color episodes are not perfect by a long shot. There are registration issues, fading, bleeding, and other side effects of working with new technology. There are also modest, but noticeable, bouts of edge enhancement. Yet these issues are eclipsed by a sheer sense of fun and creative exploration, even when they are constrained to claustrophobic sets. Later episodes get downright trippy with their color schemes, moving into the realm of Op Art. This more than anything cements The Avengers' reputation for sophisticated pop culture.
This set is the Collector's Edition of The Complete Emma Peel Megaset which was released in 2001. In addition to thinpak cases and updated cover art, the set boasts a fully-loaded bonus disc (which you can buy separately at Amazon). This is probably the disc of most interest to Avengers fans, so let's take a peek.
Most of these features are only going to appeal to diehard fans of The Avengers. The first extra is a trio of first-season episodes, the only footage from that season still in existence. The two full and one partial episodes are grittier in tone and lighting than the oft sunny later seasons. At the same time they are slower, stuffier, and less creative. Gleaning the history that brought us to the Emma Peel era is intellectually interesting, but not particularly engaging.
The bookend to this extra is an Emma Peel cameo episode from The New Avengers '77. "K Is For Kill: The Tiger Awakes" couldn't be more different from Season One's "Hot Snow." Where one is gritty and plodding, the '77 episode is glossy, action-packed, and laced with tongue-in-cheek banter. Emma hasn't missed a beat, and it is rewarding to get another fix of the Steed-Peel magic. Commonalities exist even between these vastly different takes on The Avengers, such as the professional-amateur vibe and the focus on mystery rather than actual espionage.
An alternate opening sequence and a promotional short join forces to reveal how The Avengers was pitched to American audiences. They are as hamfistedly informative as they are hokey. I resented the lack of backstory when watching the episodes, but I've made peace with the uncertainty surrounding Peel's status. The American promos ruin that mystique. These clips are important because their difference from the show itself highlights the subtle vibe achieved by The Avengers.
Finally there's a behind-the-scenes featurette, though it isn't behind the scenes in the strictest sense. These are modern-day interviews with the actors, producer, writers, and directors of the show. Honor Blackman is the most interesting of the lot, followed closely by the ever graceful Macnee and Rigg. The production staff reveals many of the tensions and creative windfalls that befell the show, forging it into the series we know. For example, Emma's fetish garb drew a lot of heat from the press and studio execs. Macnee talks about rewriting his dialogue. There is some dirt here, dished with style.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Complete Emma Peel Megaset is not all fun and games. There are many weak episodes, tired plots, and recycled themes. I wanted to sleep through the aptly named "Silent Dust." The "Man-Eater of Surrey Green" should seek greener pastures. "Epic" was not. Plots about weather manipulation and futuristic technology do not play as well these days. And as much as I love the vibe of the episode, "Too Many Christmas Trees" is based on…psychic warfare? These audacious premises render some episodes quaint.
In fact, the premise of the whole show might completely alienate you. Nowhere do they explain who John Steed is, how he gets his cases, or who he works for. Is Emma Peel an Agent or just a talented woman whom Steed pulls in to assist him? Why is there never a wrap-up or debriefing? If you think about these things at all, the façade will crack easily. The Complete Emma Peel Megaset is as unrealistic as they come, more akin to Get Smart than sets like Danger Man: The Complete First Season.
I meant recycled themes literally as well as figuratively. One side effect of watching so many episodes back-to-back is that you'll hear the same snippets of music repeated over and over. This is not a poor reflection on the composers or producers, but an artifact of DVD Megasets. While we're on the subject: Though A&E has done a great job with what they had to work with, the soundtrack suffers more than the visuals. There are dropouts and distortions throughout the set. Such issues are unavoidable, but I have to point them out.
By the time Linda Thorson moves in to portray Steed's new partner Tara King, Mr. Steed and Mrs. Peel have forged an enduring chemistry. He falters somewhat in his bravado, calling her Emma instead of dousing her in nicknames. She admonishes him: "Always keep your bowler on in time of stress, and watch out for diabolical masterminds." All we hear is the end of one of television's most celebrated partnerships. This boxed set capably captures that relationship for posterity, making it a must-have for fans of Brit pop culture.
The Avengers will not be detained any longer.
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Scales of Justice
• Three never-released episodes from Season One: "Hot Snow," "The Frighteners," and "Girl on the Trapeze"
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