Judge Paul Corupe feels let down by the lack of fine ladies in catsuits.
Our review of The New Avengers '76, published November 28th, 2003, is also available.
"I did warn you, I never fight fair."—John Steed (Patrick Macnee)
The Avengers remains arguably the most popular spy program of the 1960s, a show that teamed dapper British spy John Steed with a series of leather-clad female partners—Emma Peel, Cathy Gale, and Tara King—for tongue-in-cheek adventures in the dangerous world of cold war espionage. But like most of the small screen spies, the coming of the 1970s had The Avengers running for cover, chased into hiding by macho cops and karate-versed private detectives. However, the fickle tastes of the public couldn't stop the venerable Steed from grabbing his umbrella and donning his steel-tipped bowler for one last go-round, and in 1976, the huge international following of the original show was tapped in a modern version appropriately called The New Avengers.
The show did not go over quite as successfully as hoped. At one time, the second season of The New Avengers was considered the worst dregs of The Avengers canon, an affront to the legacy of Steed and Co. Thankfully, the disastrous 1998 film adaptation starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman has handily taken that title, and in comparison, The New Avengers now seems a passable, if inconsistent show that is best regarded as a spin-off rather than a straight up continuation of the original series.
Facts of the Case
Still in his country's service after all these years, John Steed (Patrick Macnee, A View to a Kill) continues to lead the charge against evil spies, dastardly world domination plots and secretive double agents. Karate-kicking a clear path to truth and justice are Steed's young protégés, Mike Gambit (Gareth Hunt, Upstairs, Downstairs) and Purdey (Joanna Lumley, Absolutely Fabulous). Under Steed's wise direction, the new team finds themselves traveling on missions to both France and Canada.
After almost a decade off the air, The Avengers was brought back to life by TV executive Rudolph Roffi, who convinced Brian Clemens, the original show's associate producer, to give the series another shot. Once Patrick Macnee reluctantly agreed to reprise the role of John Steed, The New Avengers became a reality. Not content to simply replicate the earlier episodes, Clemens and his writers began tinkering with the well-established formula to update the show and differentiate it from the original series.
The main adjustment was to graduate Steed to a mentor of sorts to a pair of upcoming agents named Gambit and Purdey, capably played by Gareth Hunt and Joanna Lumley, respectively. Macnee does get a healthy dose of screen time, but because the actors in this lower-budgeted series were expected to do their own stunts, the strapping Hunt was a good choice to perform the fight sequences that Macnee could no longer handle. Serving to help balance the team, Gambit is a forceful character that is quite different from the sophisticated Steed, yet equally successful with the ladies. Although she never slipped into any cat suits, Purdey is also a well-conceived addition. A high-kicking ex-ballerina, she is able to handle herself just as well as Gambit in any kind of situation, and is reminiscent of Steed's better partners from the 1960s.
Problems plagued the production of the show, as the French backers were in constant conflict with Brian Clemens over the direction of the series. By the time the second season started, the show was in financial trouble and a group of Canadian producers were brought in to pick up the slack. Roffi demanded that some episodes be shot in France, and The New Avengers did eventually take a three episode holiday in Paris, followed by a trip to Toronto for four more. A frustrated Clemens disowned the series at this point, handing the reigns to the Canadian crew. The four episodes subtitled The New Avengers in Canada were the last produced, as the show was unceremoniously buried by a lack of money combined with erratic TV scheduling in the UK and North America.
In their apparent quest to release every cult British TV series ever made, A&E has put together this four-DVD box set which collects the 13 episodes that make up the final season of the show under the title The New Avengers '77.
• "Dead Men Are Dangerous"
• "Angels of Death"
• "Medium Rare"
• "The Lion and the Unicorn"
• "K Is For Kill—Part One"
• "The Gladiators"
• "Forward Base"
As one might expect, this incarnation of The Avengers is not as much fun as the original series. In an attempt to emulate the popular police shows, The New Avengers takes a more grounded approach than its predecessor, emphasizing believable villains and plots over camp. From the first episode in the set, the angry and vengeful "Dead Men are Dangerous," the shift is quite obvious. Gone are the laughable megalomaniacs Steed usually came against, and a pessimistic tone prevails. Unfortunately, the campy humor was the one aspect of the show that really differentiated it from its peers, and this loss renders the show a little too ordinary.
Because the plots are meant to be taken at face value, the show relies more on the interactions between the lead characters to generate some much-needed levity. Luckily, both Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt are quite good in their roles, and balance Macnee's portrayal of Steed out nicely. It's especially interesting to watch Lumley, now forever identified with her perpetually stoned, foul-tempered character Patsy on Absolutely Fabulous, fight her way through henchmen and flash knowing smiles at her co-stars. Macnee will never escape his most famous role as John Steed, and effortlessly recreates the role here, although most of his screen time is devoted to pouring drinks and brooding, rather than smashing ne'er-do-wells with his hat.
Ironically, it's the The New Avengers episodes with campier pretensions that stand out from the pack on this box set. While a few of the UK-based shows offer flashes of the humor that made the original series so enjoyable, the French and Canadian episodes seem almost to be throwbacks to The Avengers of the 1960s. Presaged by a brief clip of Emma Peel talking to Steed on the phone in "K is for Kill," the plots of the last six shows immediately become more fantastical, and frankly, more interesting. The foreign backers were obviously looking for a show that was far more similar to the original series than what Clemens and his writers were creating. I'll admit to being slightly biased towards the last disc, which conveniently features all four Canadian episodes of the show—it is a bit of a thrill watching the team run around my hometown streets of Toronto. Although disliked by many fans, "Emily" is an obvious attempt to recapture the humor of the original show, while "Forward Base" and "Complex" could easily stand up against shows from the original run.
Having watched several of these kinds of A&E sets, I'm starting to get a little fed up with the persistent "passable" quality. Like the rest of their cult TV sets, these discs feature only average transfers. If you've seen the quality of one A&E TV set, you should know exactly what to expect: a silly "photo gallery" special feature, a barely adequate soundtrack, and an image that is often soft and grainy. This kind of a technical presentation might have been more accepted when A&E starting issuing these sets, but with virtually every major studio now cleaning up and converting their shows to DVD, these releases are starting to look pretty weak by comparison. I commend A&E for bothering to dig through the vaults to present some of these shows, but I'm sure a better effort would go a long way in helping to justify their high price tags.
The New Avengers is an average spy series that suffers under the burden of the "Avengers" name. If the show had a different title and starred just Gambit and Purdey, it certainly would have found a more of an enthusiastic audience. As it stands, one can't help but compare this show to one of the most popular British TV series of all time, which invariably puts The New Avengers in a bad light. As such, A&E's box set is best suited for Avengers completists, or those who can mindfully divorce this series from the original.
Despite some fine parenting, sometimes even the most well intentioned kids have trouble living up to their parent's expectations. The New Avengers is sentenced to two years in juvenile hall.
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