By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues
One of my favourite shows growing up was the New Avengers and, like Doctor Who, I was aware it had started in the sixties, so the seventies version was my first exposure to it and now that I have seen the earlier Mrs Peel, Tara King and Cathy Gale episodes, the seventies version with Purdey, Gambit and Steed is as much Avengers as its predecessors. Anything could happen and often did.
Between 1976 and 1977 larger than life villains, bizarre situations and even monster rats were every day life for our heroes. In one episode there was even a Pied Piper who controlled birds rather than rats. In Gnaws, a lovely spin on Jaws, the Spielberg great white shark movie, they fought a giant rat, grown to elephant size by means of a top secret government formula that accelerates growth. It was aimed to end world hunger but as always with these things, some was stolen. They would face one odd situation after another with some of the action transferring to Canada who had partly funded some of the 25 episode run.
Only in the Avengers could a fishing rod become a deadly weapon on an island where the body of Hitler is being kept in suspended animation and a gang of monks are actually Nazis that have stopped aging. They faced mad Chinese Mandarins and old school friends with a grudge as well as criminals that could put half of London to sleep to pull off the ultimate robbery and plastic surgeons that could take people, change their faces and replace people like the Prime Minister were ten a penny. There was nothing that Steed, Purdey and Gambit couldn’t handle. Watching them back now I think they are great stories, some have a logic problem, but it’s all done with such energy and enthusiasm. Gambit is in love with Purdey and constantly tries to get her into bed but she is a lady that has the deadliest high kick in the world and can take down any one that got in her way. Played by Joanna Lumley who is a national icon, let’s be honest, Purdey fitted the quintessential Avenger girl; beautiful, deadly and fun. For the first time ever, Steed had a male side kick in the form of Gareth Hunt’s Gambit who was a super spy and a martial arts expert though he could pull off a mean Irish accent. Steed, as played by Patrick Macnee, was…well, Steed. An English gent who enjoyed the finer things in life and the ladies and he still was lethal with an umbrella. Week after week these three acted as a team to keep the world safe and there were times they came close to failing but triumphed in the end.
One such battle was the Last of the Cybernauts…? which brought back an old enemy from the sixties series, the titular robotic Cybernauts. First encountered twice by Steed and Mrs Peel, played by Diana Rigg. It seemed they were gone forever but not so. it was this battle almost saw the end of all three of the Avengers.
The episode begins on Steed’s birthday when they receive a call that a double agent has been identified and they leave to take him down. Felix Kane is his name and in the ensuing car chase he is caught in an explosion. Fast forward a year later and we discover that Kane wasn’t killed and the events still bear heavily on Steed’s mind. Kane is now a wheelchair bound cripple who wears masks to convey his moods and he is hellbent on revenge. He tracks down the Cybernaut technology via the original builder, Frank Goff, now released from prison, and has him reactivate the robot. Killing Goff , he uses the Cybernaut to kidnap a surgeon, Professor Mason, who will be able to complete Kane’s plan. He wants to be augmented using Cybernaut technology so he can kill the Avengers himself. Steed is almost killed by the robot when Kane sends it to steal some technology that Mason needs to complete the surgery.
Gambit also has a run in with the Cybernaut along with Purdey on a staircase where they manage to throw it from the top flight. Mason succeeds in combining Kane with a Cybernaut and he targets Purdey first, knocking Gambit down along the way with a car. Mason manages to warn Steed about Kane’s plan. He intends to leave her in the same state as himself to torture Steed and when he invades her apartment, it seems Purdey is going to die. They really go for it in the fight scene and her flat is trashed. The famous Purdey moves are there but she is worn down by the Kane cyborg and he manages to grab her, ready to smash her body for her friends to find. However, Steed and Gambit burst in and spray Kane with plastic skin which freezes the Cybernaut tech and stops him in his tracks.
A lot works well to make this an unforgettable episode. The Cybernauts themselves are creepy, blank faced silver robots and can kill you by breaking your neck with one blow. Unlike the Cybermen in Doctor Who, the Cybernauts are mindless, controlled by remote using cameras in their eyes to allow the controller to see where they are going. The incidental music makes a huge impact in conveying their menace.
These really are lethal weapons and the fact they have no expression to read means that you never know when they are going to break your neck. And again, when Gambit and Purdey go up against it they might as well be fighting air as nothing they do can stop it or slow it down. Kane himself is a Davros-like villain made even creepier by the false plastic masks which he changes to convey his mood. He is also reminiscent of the John Lumic character in the 21st century Doctor Who’s Rise of the Cybermen and Age of Steel starring David Tennant. But he is much more sinister, living in a place that is covered in pictures of Steed, Purdey and Gambit’s faces as well as life-sized cardboard cut-outs, all the focus for his hate and vengeance making him the quintessential Avengers villain. There was almost an appearance by Diana Rigg but it never happened and the episode works well none the less. A complete classic from a classic show.