Thursday, July 20, 2006

 

The Avengers – The Cybernauts

Tonight’s Avengers on BBC4 (7.10, or 11.30 tomorrow night) is one of the strongest, and arguably the most famous. While there are plenty of guest actors who’ll have you going, ‘Ooh, it’s him!’ – most notably villainous Michael Gough, with his marvellous voice and wolfish cast to the mouth – it’s not the humans it’s remembered for. This is one of the few distinctly sci-fi episodes, and despite several red herrings along the way it’s not much of a spoiler to say that it does what it says in the title. Tune in to see implacable armoured robots smashing things.
Steed receives a deadly gift – Emma pockets it
There’s something about scary monsters that seizes the imagination, even if the Cybernauts didn’t wrest control of The Avengers in quite the way that the Daleks did Doctor Who. I don’t know how I knew about them from long before I ever saw them, but know them I did; having been captivated by some of the mid-’80s Avengers repeats when I was at school that were my introduction to the programme, I know that this is the one I really wanted to see when more repeats and video releases finally came round in the mid-’90s. When, in the colour Mrs Peel season, Emma sits at home watching an old Avengers episode on TV, naturally it’s this one; while Doctor Who has made use of many ideas from The Avengers, inveterate borrower that it’s always been (not least the very, very bad attempt to do The Avengers that I’m trying to review for something else right now), the Cybernauts are the most obvious influence and helped inspire such famous monsters as, particularly, the Autons and the Cybermen. So do they stand up today? Actually, yes, they do.

The Cybernauts return twice to menace the Avengers, their only recurring foes, but I reckon this is still the best use of them. The plot revolves around them, from making sense of the fashionable concern with Japanese electronics to the villain’s disturbingly ‘rational’ plan, and the screen presence of great lumbering men with solid silver faces is much enhanced by claustrophobic black and white, outstanding direction and a music score so good that I once made a friend through it. I can’t hold a tune in a bucket, but I remember meeting a chap down the pub and talking Avengers; before long, we got onto this episode’s great music, and one of us just started humming the urgent, strident theme that accompanies the metal men. The other joined in, and we knew we were on the same wavelength (as well as scaring everyone around us). It repeatedly holds back on the full fanfare, tantalising us with just a build-up until near the climax of the episode when the music really gets going, much as the director hold backs on the ‘reveal’ of the Cybernauts themselves. They’re not a wildly imaginative design, but what they do have is presence, right from the first moments as one smashes through a door. We get an impression of massive bulk, a powerful fist (a guard, hit, tumbles splendidly), invulnerability to pistol shots and point-blank shotgun fire from the business tycoon it’s pursuing, and then just the huge dark shape moving from the camera as the victim falls, neck bent. And as for that whipcrack sound each time it hits out…

This is a brilliantly directed piece of TV, full of tension that builds towards a stunning set of climaxes, though it knows how to let in lighter moments along the way. Look out for Steed moving past dividing walls, shown by a bobbing bowler, or what comes of Hammond’s prissy precision in tidying Steed’s flat, and of course Steed managing to have an improbable amount of fun just spinning around a lift. All this is aided by an impeccable cast, with Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg in good form, despite her wearing rather a frumpy outfit for much of it (and, trivia fans, I have a feeling this may be the only time this year they don’t drive off together). That ‘Ooh, it’s him!’ factor includes actors like Frederick Jaeger, John Hollis (the bald guy from The Empire Strikes Back and, oh, everything), Bernard Horsfall (one of those character actors who always gets it right, including four roles in Doctor Who, three superb), Burt Kwouk (you know him, don’t you?) and, of course, the compelling Michael Gough as diabolical mastermind Dr Clement Armstrong. A wheelchair-bound megalomaniac who wants to spin the clock forward to a world of mechanisation, he inspired Dalek- and Cyber-creators Davros and Mr Lumic, and though he only appears half-way through, immediately dominates and remains centre-stage until the end. As with many utopians who know exactly how to ‘perfect’ the world, what’s terrifying about him is his utter certainty.

This is the first Avengers script from writer Philip Levene, as well as featuring some much-used plot devices, one of which will be a SPOILER. Mr Levene goes on to create most of the series’ more outrageous fantasy episodes, often very amusingly; this is slightly less witty than most, though still surprisingly playful for so many brutal murders (even in visual jokes like Jephcott’s toys and the ‘worker’ Cybernaut). It introduces the Avengers plot device of ‘carrying something around that will destroy you’, which is going to turn up in a startling number of guises from now on and even in a Doctor Who story of around the same time, featuring a Cybernaut-on-Cybernaut-style monster fight, then a few years later in one of the most Avengers-influenced Who stories, by a sometime Avengers writer (your challenge for this week, Will, is to spot which stories these are). The SPOILER, coming now, is perhaps predictable in another version of the Frankenstein myth; it’s a very overused Avengers cliché for the villain to be killed with his own weapon, though the way Armstrong goes out at the hands of his own creation is considerably more stylish and appropriate than the sometimes wearying ‘Oh, look, he happens to have fallen on his own gun / sword / giant block of butter, and it went off’.

I tend to particularly enjoy Philip Levene’s Avengers scripts, though it’s more for their playfulness than their occasional science fiction overtones. The Avengers is surprisingly hard to pin down as to ‘what sort of series it is’, but sci-fi wouldn’t really spring to mind. Though it’s happy to borrow and play with some of the trappings from time to time, for every killer robot, there’s a fake time machine to say it’s all pretend. While it concerns espionage, secret files and murder far more often than sci-fi, calling it a ‘spy series’ misses the point too. They’re having too much fun to be James Bond, let alone George Smiley. A comedy thriller, then? Well, that’s not too far off, but though it’s often not to be taken any too seriously, it adds drama to humour in unexpected ways. A series to tune in to be amused by, certainly, but I can’t imagine it with a laughter track. Breaking other people’s formulas and inventing its own, I’ve called the series a fantasy of Britain, but the best way of summing it up remains to tune in and watch this unique and wonderful show itself.

Next week, they’re showing no less than four Avengers episodes. Eek!

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Comments:
I shall return after the episode has been on, but my first thought, for the Who serial by an Avengers writer, is Doctor Who and the Loch Ness Monster by Robert "Man Easter of Surrey Green" Banks "Seeds of Doom" Stewart.
 
Righty... Quite enjoyed it but lost interest a little towards the end, around the time the Cybernauts themselves turned up. I'm afraid I've never bought into them and they don't excite me one bit. I suspect I prefer my Avengers less overtly sci-fi.

I do like Levene as a rule, and this had loads of Doctor Who actors. Hollis was in The Mutants, Kwouk was in Four to Doomsday (the new name for The Satan Pit?), and with Horsfall and Gough you have The Two Chancellors. Which one of the former's roles wasn't superb - the Thal in Planet of the Daleks?

I'm not sure which contemporaneous Who story uses the carrying-something-around plot device and has a Cybernaut-Cybernaut-style deathmatch. That sounds a bit like the Dalek-Mechanoid battle in The Chase, but if it's not that I'll need a clue. I think the other reference must be, as I suggested above, the device that attracts the Skarasen in Terror of the Zygons.
 
And with that first answer, your team goes into the lead!

I was indeed thinking of the pen planted on victims attracting Cybernauts / the homing device planted on victims attracting the Loch Ness Monster (in the story less dedicated fans may be able to track down as Terror of the Zygons). Of course, despite being an Avengers writer, Mr Banks Stewart didn't write Man Whitsun of Surrey Green the first time (that was Philip Levene again), just the Doctor Who remake you also mention...

I'm fairly sure there's almost exactly the same story again for Pertwee's Doctor with a villain confusingly looking like the Master, but who isn't him, in an old Countdown Annual. I've not read that for a long time, though.

Having just read your second post as I hit 'Preview', oddly, for me the most gripping part of The Cybernauts is towards the end, as the music reaches a crescendo while the Cybernaut closes in on Mrs Peel. I agree with you on all points for the Who actors, though (and I'll raise you Freddie Jaeger playing William Hartnell in The Savages, a shaggy dog in Planet of Evil and Peter Sellers in The Invisible Enemy). Though I like this one, I'd agree on some of The Avengers' sci-fi moments not being much cop; a few in later seasons are dreary, and even Man Christmas of Surrey Green isn't as exciting as I'd always imagined before seeing it.

Further clues on Cybernaut-on-Cybernaut-style deathmatch: it has something in common with Cybernaut-on-Cybernaut that Dalek-Mechanoid action doesn't have; and it's from late rather than mid-'60s, making it all the more likely someone had seen The Cybernauts and had time to put it into a script they were thinking about.
 
Hmm, I think I must have made about a typo. :)

I automatically assume that these episodes are around the time of late Troughton because of the production values, but The Avengers was of course way ahead. But suggesting it was around the same time sent me off to The Chase. If it's later... Hmm. I'm not greatly versed in Troughton (especially the missing stuff) so I'll think as I type. White robots? Krotons? Quarks? The combination of two is a bit puzzling. Oh - Cyberman and T(racy-Ann O)oberman maybe?
 
Sorry for the typo gagstering. If it makes you feel any better, I still missed out the hyphen ;-)

Oh dear. I seem accidentally to have started torturing you. What the monsters have in common with the Cybernaut-on-Cybernaut deathmatch is that it's not two different monsters duking it out.

But it may be easier for you to identify the Troughton in question by going back to the original link, and thinking, "In which story does someone have something planted on them that causes the monster to come and get them?"

Getting off this for a moment, after watching The Cybernauts tonight, the great thing I'd forgotten is how Steed reacts to a sterile, mechanical utopia with a combination of 'naughty schoolboy' and 'naughtier sybarite'...
 
Hmm. Yeti sphere? Or something in The Invasion?
 
There is indeed Cyber-on-Cyber action in The Invasion, but I can't think of any homing devices in it (Richard wondered about the dinosaur snogging, but we won't go there).

However, you are getting closer. Yes, I can hear the beeping sound... Perhaps it's that the story in question had just come out in paperback when I was just starting to read, so I always feel I know it back to front and can remember the images it conjured up, despite never having seen the fight in question.

Incidentally, if anyone has any ideas why Millennium's template has gone a bit wonky since he started time-travelling...?
 
If it's The Web of Fear, I'm afraid I have no idea which fight - it's a very long time since I saw the old reconstruction, and even longer since I read the novelisation. Two yetis? And was it something other than a sphere?
 
Ah, indeed. Well, I've put links to a detailed story guide and a photonovel (the BBC having burned the original tapes), but in essence much of the story revolves around tiny Yeti models being placed, like the pens, on potential victims who the Yeti then seek out and destroy. In this case, they tend to destroy not just a single person, but rip up either rooms or everyone unlucky enough to be in the vicinity.

At the story's conclusion, the Doctor has reprogrammed the control sphere for one of the robot Yeti, and it's ordered to attack another, in what I'm fairly sure the novel describes as "Great, smashing blows".

Sorry it was such hard work, but the first time I saw The Cybernauts, I immediately thought "Hmm..." in both respects.
 
Gosh - I don't remember the mini Yeti at all.

I do, when in the company of fans, sometimes have to apologise for being a bit of a rubbish fan. Unless you want to know the serial codes and transmission orders, in which case I'm word perfect ;-)
 
Slightly confusingly, the mini-Yeti started off as a sort of remote control on the chessboard-like map in their first story (move the little one, and the big one moves with it), then becomes the Avengers-like Homing Device of Death.

Oh, you're a lovely fan. You write interesting reviews when you actually watch a story: that's much more engaging than only regurgitating factlets. I love reading reviews (especially those more intelligent than "I liked it cos it was good").

I can do transmission orders, though only for Doctor Who, but serial codes... Not a hope. Stories, I can do - numbers, I get bleary. Out of the entire set out of 160 or so, I can probably remember about half a dozen off the top of my head. The first few, obviously; then Spearhead From Space, because it starts the Third Doctor, so I can remember it's the first one with three letters and must be AAA; and a couple of punningly appropriate ones, like The Monster of Peladon (an utterly pointless sequel) being 'YYY', and violent, blasphemous The Face of Evil being 4Q (as in, "4Q, Mary Whitehouse!"). None of the others spring to mind - it's like 1066 and 1666, and other than that I'm a bit stumped. I can remember the (hi)stories, but not the dates.
 
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