Monday, July 12, 2010

The Avengers

I received a 32-DVD, 2 case set of the old The Avengers TV series from A&E for my birthday last year. It's taken a while to go through all approximately 100 50-minute episodes (the case says all 9 seasons and 161 episodes on 32 DVDs, but it's lying). It's not really the complete TV collection; the first season, which introduces the John Steed character as a sidekick to a detective doctor, has apparently been lost to time. And the last season, where Tara King replaces Emma Peel, is another 33 episodes (or 8-10 DVDs) by itself. Still, these disks run from 1962 to 1968, and there's a lot of good stuff in them to watch. Unfortunately, something on some of these disks is a bit iffy, because at least 4 of them refuse to load, and several of them have frozen in the middle of being played (unloading and reloading the disk has fixed the freeze problem in most cases. For the last disk in the set, it seemed to be temperature related; letting it cool down in front of the air conditioner caused it to play properly for a few minutes at a time.) The problems exist on more than one PC.

The wikipedia entry mentions that in the Emma Peel episodes that the high-tech element got so over the top as to result in the coining of the term "spy-fi" to describe the series. The thing is, a lot of the plot elements were prescient throughout the entire length of the series. An early 1965 (or thereabouts) episode with Honor Blackman predicts Japan as the country to corner the technology for making the replacement to transistors (the writers don't actually come out and call this replacement "semiconductors", but they say that the new technology will allow for radios you can wear on your wrist and computers you can hold in your hands). "The House that Jack Built" (w/ Emma Peel, 1966) supposes a fully automated house, while "A Sense of History" (w/ Emma Peel, 1966) claims that England's only hope is for a united European Common Wealth (think - one currency). A lot of the technology is still dated, though, and there's a lot of racist or stereotypical characterization that wouldn't sit well with modern audiences. But if you can get past that, it's still a fun show.

The production values are really low, some of the plot holes are so obvious, and the special effects so campy, as to be pretty funny. In "From Venus With Love", a high-powered industrial laser is capable of burning through plate steel, but the effects crew forgot to put in holes in places where the laser hits an eye chart during the final combat scene, and when it hits Steed's hat, instead of vaporizing it, the laser just bleaches the bowler white (front, back and inside). In "The Fear Merchants", you can see Steed's double's face during the hand-to-hand fight scene. In other episodes, you can see Emma Peel bulk up just before she gets thrown (because her stunt double is a guy in a wig).

One thing that amazes me though is just how far the directors tried to push the boundaries of taste for the time. In "A Touch of Brimstone", Emma is the centerpiece of a drunken orgy conducted by a recreation of the Hellfire Club, dressed up in a wicked S&M outfit (on a side note, parts of her full-body combat catsuit were custom-made by a company specializing in clothing for fetishists). And in "Honey for the Prince", Emma does a dance of the seven veils routine, and has to pull her pants up over her butt as she walks out the door. In "The Girl from AUNTIE", Emma comes out of a party wearing a skin-colored leotard made up to look like a bunny, with only little white tufts of fur covering up the strategic parts (I couldn't get a good screen cap of that image, unfortunately). Sexual innuendo is all over the place, and the threat of forced sex crops up fairly often.

On the other hand, there's a lot of cultural references (a possible reference to missing spy George Blake (a signboard says "Where is Blake?" in "Escape in Time"), a play on the names of the Beatles, and plays on rival show names with titles like "The Girl from AUNTIE" (ref. "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.") and "Mission Highly Improbable" (ref. Mission: Impossible). It's hard to believe that Hollywood would think that they could build on all of this for a modern remake.

When you watch the episodes one after the other, you can see the big jump in style that accompanies the switch from black and white to color. There's a new opening sequence, subtitle cards with campy puns at the beginning of the episode, Steed's new catch-phrase - "Mrs. Peel, we're needed", and Emma's suddenly taking up different kinds of modern art each show. There were also a number of remakes, with almost the entire script being lifted word-for-word, such as with "The Charmers" being reworked as "The Correct Way to Kill". But, about halfway the gimmicks were dropped and the show got grittier again. However, this too only lasted a short time, in that the first season to use color soon ended and Emma was replaced by Tara.

I don't like the Tara character, so it's not that big a loss that her episodes weren't part of the box set. (Even though they're advertised as being included.)

Emma in a spiked collar for the win!

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