When the British Film Institute celebrated 50 Years of Emma Peel in 2015, as well as interviewing the venerable Dame Diana Rigg – halfway through her run on Game of Thrones at the time – the BFI screened two episodes of Peel-era Avengers show.
Return of the Cybernauts was one (The House That Jack Built the other), chosen, presumably, because it had a big-name star in the shape of Peter Cushing in its cast, because it was something of a fan favourite and, I’m also guessing, because the production values were more polished than they had been hitherto.
Because the show had been Emmy nominated, the ABC network ordered more, of which this was the first, stumping up enough American cash to give the underpaid Diana Rigg more money (she had threatened to leave). That money is also clearly visible on screen, in the sets, the clothes, the lighting. Everything in Return of the Cybernauts is simply just a bit glossier.
That’s really evident right after the pre-credits sequence. After we’ve been re-introduced to the big, lumbering and seemingly invincible creature first encountered in The Cybernauts, now scything through a door and killing a man with a single blow, we meet impeccably dressed and groomed Steed and Peel having a chummy evening chez Paul Beresford (Cushing), a man who is as suave as he is flirtatious and whose attention to Mrs Peel is clearly unsettling Steed.
What the pair don’t know, but we do once Steed and Peel have left, is that debonair Beresford is the man behind the murderous cybernaut. We later learn he is the brother of the cybernaut’s inventor (Michael Gough who appered in the cybernaut’s original outing and who we see in archive footage) and that he’s out for revenge against Steed and Peel, who he blames for his brother’s death.
In a clear breach of security, Steed and Peel have told Beresford that the case they’re on involves missing scientists. And wouldn’t you know it but Beresford is behind that too. And he has plans to turn the scientists into killing machines expressly targeted at Steed and Peel.
Why bother, when you already have a deadly cybernaut at your disposal? There is no real reason given. It’s just one of many holes in an episode that appears to have simply thrown plot elements together hurriedly and shaken them about.
OK, so it’s best not watched as a tight, self-contained story, but there are still joys to be had. Beyond its exquisite production design, these come mainly from the playing of the cast – Cushing’s almost balletic dash and his quick switch from charm personified to the epitome of evil; a returning Frederick Jaeger as his right hand man; Fulton Mackay (a world away from the upright prison warder Mr Mackay in Porridge) and Charles Tingwell (ham-handed good-natured cop to Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple) as two of the scientists being pressured by Beresford into doing his bidding; and Aimi MacDonald as a sex-mad secretary who tries to chat up the silent-and-deadly cybernaut. Smirk-inducing.
Jolly enough, though the cult status surrounding the cybernaut (clearly a cousin of Dr Who’s cybermen) baffles me – The New Avengers also had a cybernaut episode in 1976, and home-video distributor Network released a raved-over Blu-ray box set containing all three episodes as a package in time for Christmas 2019.
By the way, Cybernauts plural? There’s only one!
Whether this episode is part of Series 6 or a continuation of Series 5 is moot. I’m going with the convention embraced by StudioCanal’s 2014 boxset and plumping for it being a late entrant to Series 5. It was originally conceived that way.
The imdb prefers to say we’re now in Series 6 (a short one of only eight episodes), while the Avengers Forever site leans towards calling this Series 5 (though it draws a distinction between two distinct production blocks – 5A and 5B).
There’s not much in it either way, but lumping this episode in with Series 5 means all the Emma Peel colour episodes are together, and since Series 5 is often referred to as THE classic series, that’s an advantage.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020