The sixth of the Diana Rigg episodes to be made, though the third to be shown, The Cybernauts looks vaguely back to the Honor Blackman era – Mrs Peel still in leather and a bit helmet-haired – but in other respects it’s the most forward-looking episode we’ve yet seen. Perhaps that’s what you’d expect with a sci-fi flavoured episode title with a ring of Doctor Who about it.
Or are we in the realm of the supernatural? In the traditional opening “death scene” we see a man in his house being attacked by some big creature impervious to bullets, strong enough to bend a rifle barrel with a swipe of the hand and clearly intent on murder.
And, after the episode title has appeared, we meet blithe spirits Steed and Peel as they quip away about a run of murders they seem unable to solve. However… a lead. The latest victim has been killed by a karate blow known only to a handful of people in Europe. So off Mrs Peel heads to a dojo, where she is complimented on her fighting skills with a “fights like a man” level remark, while Steed, Patrick Macnee easing into middle age, poses as the dead man’s replacement, sent in by Industrial Deployments, some British government quango, to negotiate with a representative (Burt Kwouk) of a Japanese electronics firm.
Interesting stuff here – not because Kwouk was hot off Goldfinger (with Honor Blackman) and the second Pink Panther film, A Shot in the Dark. And not because Kwouk is ethnically Chinese (though born in Warrington he was raised in Shanghai) rather than Japanese, since Kwouk’s career saw him sliding all over the oriental ethnosphere. Interesting instead because of how precisely this episode is delineating the future. Not only are the Japanese shown as leaders in electronics technology – at the time they were popularly seen as good for making tinny transistor radios and not much else – but Kwouk’s Mr Tusamo also informs a boggle-eyed Steed that in the future there will be computers the size of a cigarette packet (an iPhone, in other words).
Meanwhile, checking out a British company in the same field, Mrs Peel is treated to a demonstration of British hi-tech – a robot dog that comes when you call. Except it doesn’t, when company boss Jephcott (Bernard Horsfall) beckons. Over at another British tech company, run by a Dr Armstrong from his Dr Strangelove-inspired wheelchair (and played by the fabulously stately Michael Gough, who’d wind up as Alfred in the 1980s/90s Batman movies), Steed is horrified as Armstrong tells him about artificial intelligence, the robot workforce of the future and a machine that can answer any question you ask it (sounds a bit like Wikipedia).
Three suspects – the foreigner with the best tech, the Brit whose stuff doesn’t work, and another Brit whose vision of the future is unsettling at the very least. Who’s the wrong’un?
Unusually for The Avengers, writer Philip Levene spends quite a lot of energy misdirecting us – red herrings are not the usual way for this series. And it’s not the only innovation. The camerawork is noticeably crisper and more fluid than in the previous two episodes and a vast amount of care and attention has gone into Mrs Peel’s look – never a hair out of place, lippy seemingly laser-applied.
One hangover from the Cathy Gale era is that Mrs Peel seems to be in leather gear just in time for the fights, which is vaguely absurd, though there is a very nice late sequence when Steed is showing off his fighting skills to the sound of Laurie Johnson’s soundtrack playing The Avengers second theme in a string quartet arrangement – Hong Kong director John Woo would later use this contrast between all-action visuals and stately soundtrack repeatedly, and you wonder if he saw it here first.
As for the whodunit aspect, the reveal is ingenious – Levene is good at this sort of thing – and wouldn’t be out of keeping among Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories, if that isn’t too much of a giveaway.
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© Steve Morrissey 2019