Binges & Boxsets – TV Review – The Avengers: The Cybernauts Trilogy (1965-1976)

Specs

Title: The Avengers: The Cybernauts Trilogy
Starring: Patrick Macnee, Diana Rigg, Joanna Lumley, Gareth Hunt, Michael Gough, Peter Cushing
Written by: Philip Levene, Brian Clemens
Directed by: Sidney Hayers, Robert Day
Label: Network Releasing
Release date: 5th August 2019
Format: Blu-ray
Video format: 1080p
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 pillarboxed
Soundtracks: LPCM 1.0
Subtitles: English
Runtime: 156 mins
No. of discs: 1 x BD-50
Packaging: Blu-ray digipack with booklet
Region Coding: Region B
Rating: BBFC PG

Official Synopsis

There isn’t much more one can say about The Avengers, the global and stylish television trailblazer it is (by any standards), but we do have something new to present with The Cybernauts Trilogy.
We’ve selected three highpoints from across the run for this special 2019 release: The Cybernauts, their 1965 robotic debut featuring Diana Rigg; the 1967 follow-up Return of the Cybernauts, again with Diana Rigg and Peter Cushing guesting in one of his most sinister roles; and, making its world High Definition debut, The New Avengers 1976 finale The Last of the Cybernauts…?? .
We’ve pulled the original film elements for all three episodes into the Network studio for brand new, painstaking, High Definition restorations, exclusively for this release.
There’s much more to this release, though: as well as presenting the episodes in all their uncut, restored glory, we’re also presenting the option to watch each episode in its contemporary transmission context, with actual commercials in situ.
Included in the package is a 32-page booklet by celebrated television historian Andrew Pixley detailing the history of the three episodes and there’s limited edition digipack packaging whilst stocks last.
This really is the last of the Cybernauts.

Review

WARNINGS: POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ALL ERAS OF THE AVENGERS AND NEW AVENGERS;
Also: the author of the review used to work for Network from 2011 to 2013. However, he is unaffiliated with them at present, and the copy under review was a personal purchase, not a review copy or freebie.

What, indeed, is there left to say about crown jewel of British cult TV THE AVENGERS? Between its ground-breaking five-year run that encompassed a sea change in how televisual drama was made in Britain, through the immense range of talent in front of and behind the camera, to its enduring legacy across British-made entertainment since, the show deserves every accolade awarded it, its place in history assured.

Transformative masterstroke number 1 was Patrick Macnee’s iconic British agent John Steed, stepping forward from second billing in the mostly-lost live-shot 1961 first season to a career-making lead modelled very much on himself. Steed is the acceptable face of English heroism from an era whose fictional icons have revealed themselves to be unfit for service in modern times. He is a man at ease with his society even as he investigates its failings and punishes both its criminals and its enemies. Sartorial elegance, fine taste and sportsmanship are held in high regard, yet never at the cost of intellectual achievement, justice served or good humour. And his deft balancing, of unfailing respect for those who have chosen to be seen as women with honest interest in or desire for them, is arguably a masterclass in nontoxic masculinity worth learning from in the 21st century.

Masterstroke number 2 was to re-cast the Ian Hendry’s male lead role in season 2 with actress Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, but leave the scripts mostly as they were (similar to how Ridley Scott nearly two decades later would cast Officer Ripley of the Nostromo). This immediately made her a ground-breaking action heroine, while both the costume designer and the camera loved her face and form, and so did audiences. Live television meant she would have to use martial arts on stuntmen, then have to change into something svelte and fashionable and look unruffled, which she absolutely did time and again. After two seasons, however, she stepped up to the 007 franchise as the female lead in GOLDFINGER, and a replacement was needed.

Masterstroke number 3 was casting Diana Rigg, today a Dame, as Mrs. Emma Peel. While still stylish and physical, Mrs.Peel was a very different kettle of fish, but the foundations of her role were more solid given the production moved to filmed recordings and so scenes could be re-written, re-shot, or re-edited before the final edit was delivered to transmission. Without the restrictions of live television, the show moved towards more outlandish, comic-book villains and storylines, even if they started from something realistic and then current. Rigg and Macnee rose to the creative avenues these gave them, and remain the most iconic team to have been featured in the franchise.

Which brings us the long way round to this release. Owned by Studiocanal, who have released generally excellent HD remasters of the filmed series (the two Emma Peel ones, and the final year with Linda Thorson’s Tara King) alongside DVDs of the existing episodes of the first three, the series has nevertheless been a holy grail for the incredible restoration team at Network. Their direct relationship with the late great Brian Clemens, a giant of British television and film who wrote for every iteration of the series as well as producing the filmed years and THE NEW AVENGERS revival, enabled them to show him how well they could restore CI5: THE PROFESSIONALS when they obtained the rights; it’s not hard to imagine they might have been able to do the same thing with THE AVENGERS if he had lived. But now, in bringing together these three episodes across three eras that feature the same core villain, they have allowed us to compare and contrast the evolution of the show, while also staking a claim to being the best people for the job of preparing for HD release THE NEW AVENGERS.

Fans of English cult tv will know what to expect: mystery, suspense, chills, thrills, gags and glamour, from all concerned. THE CYBERNAUTS features Michael Gough, with the inimitable Burt Kwouk in a small role devoid of racist intent or execution (in 1965! Imagine that!). In typical AVENGERS’ style, Macnee and Riggs save each other rather than only the former rescuing the latter. Versatile feature director Sidney Hayers directs a script from actor/writer/playwright Philip Levene (both would become production regulars), demonstrating his facility with thrillers and horror, including a dark ending in which we see exactly why our heroes are named as they are; they stand and watch the villain meet his unpleasant end at the hands of his own creation, something that comes about through Steed’s own doing. Peel shows some emotion, but Steed is impassive – this is justice rendered, facilitated by him.

1967’s RETURN OF THE CYBERNAUTS shows how far Macnee and Riggs have come with their portrayals and on-screen relationship, while also revealing the more expansive nature of the first colour film series’ production. Sets that aim for Ken Adams’ flair, fine costuming and the inimitable Peter Cushing in the villain role make for a perfect example of the show at its very best, and arguably British cult tv as well. TARZAN regular director Robert Day directs from another Levene script, and definitely brings a cinema-influenced visual flair to the proceedings.

THE LAST OF THE CYBERNAUTS…?, however, differs in a few crucial noticeable ways. Only the third episode aired in the new revival of the show, Macnee and therefore Steed is noticeably older, although still wonderful to watch. His new team of Mike Gambit (Gareth Hunt) and Purdey (Joanna Lumley) are still settling into their roles, both eye candy for different parts of the audience (this is 1976 after all – we get Gambit naked in bed, chest on display, and Purdey in ballerina gear exercising at the pole), but already Lumley’s chemistry with Macnee echoes the earlier iterations of the show. The action is more violent, quite literally more explosive – witness the opening car chase – while returning director Hayers, working with a Clemens script, does his best with copious amounts of location shooting but manages to throttle back the realism just enough times to find the spirit of the original – note the nod back to classic 1960 French horror LES YEUX SANS VISAGE, as well as the humourous “weapon” that saves the day. It’s a different kettle of fish, and whileTHE NEW AVENGERS would last two series, Macnee and Clemens were right to later declare it as having failed to re-capture the magic of the original, even if it was mostly enjoyable on its own terms.

Video & Audio

Reference quality, as one would expect with Network. THE NEW AVENGERS episode is on a par with their insanely good releases of THE PROFESSIONALS, made subsequently by the same production team. The colour episode of THE AVENGERS looks sublime, clearly a distinct cut above the Studiocanal remaster of the same episode, with textures and details unseen in the latter, as well as finer clarity and clean-up. The b/w episode, however, is possibly the best of the lot, as good as the best feature restorations Criterion or Arrow Academy or, for that matter, Network themselves. The audio might lack directionality, but not warmth and depth; mono though these tracks are, these are the clearest and cleanest they have ever sounded, capturing the viewer with ease.

Extras

The Vintage Experience is something Network trialled on earlier discs of other series, and boy is it a nostalgic joy on the first and even subsequent viewings, assuming, of course, you are old enough to have lived through at least one of these eras’ adverts restored and reprogrammed here. In your reviewer’s case, while not old enough to be allowed to stay up and watch THE NEW AVENGERS on its initial airings, the ads included here are almost all familiar from the mid-late seventies. Seeing them again has been both the joy mentioned but also a salient reminder of how far we’ve managed to come as a society in England despite the current attempts to rewind the clock back to well before any of these episodes. There is a diversity to some of the 60s ads that has been forgotten in modern discussions but shows how high street brands were moving forward with normalising multiculturalism.
Additionally, seeing the shows with ad breaks intact restores their intended pacing, meaning recap dialogue or cliffhanger moments function as they were supposed to. This too is a real pleasure.

Conclusion

However good the Studiocanal box set masters looked to the untrained eye, these remasters are eye-poppingly glorious, suggesting that even if Studiocanal have no plans to sublicense the entire original series to Network, they would do well to let them have THE NEW AVENGERS and get it out there alongside their wonderful sets of fellow 70s highlights THE PROFESSIONALS and THE SWEENEY S1. Frankly, any fan of the series will have already bought this, but if you’re sitting on the fence after splurging on the full series box sets, do not hesitate – get this NOW.