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BEST OF THE ORIGINAL AVENGERS

Review by Alex Haberstroh

Stars: Patrick Macnee, Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Linda Thorson
Audio:  Dolby
2.0 Surround
Video:  Color and B&W
4:3 Pan & Scan
Studio: A&E
Features:  See Review
Length:  Disc 1- 150 Minutes (Containing three episodes) Disc 2- 150 Minutes (Containing three episodes)
Release Date:  January 2, 2001

Episodes:  **1/2

“Mrs. Peel, we’re needed.”

Until recently I had neither known of nor seen The Avengers television show.  My only exposure was through seeing the torturous Avengers movie that came out in 1998.  The film was panned by both critics and audiences alike, and left even The Avengers faithful shaking their heads in disappointment.  Curious about any show that could have helped spawn a movie so horribly bad, I approached the disc with a mix of caution and curiosity.     

Debuting in England in 1961 to rave reviews, the British spy show The Avengers soon swept across Europe, earning it the distinction of being the most watched British TV import of all time.  While it took until 1965 for the show to appear in America, it quickly garnered a cult following, etching characters John Steed and Mrs. Emma Peel into sixties’ pop culture.     

Although aired for nine years, the cast changed four times with the exception of Patrick Macnee (who played John Steed from 1960 to the end of 1969).  The show originally starring Steed and Dr. David Keel, became the first show to deviate from the normal formula of spy shows of the time by replacing Keel the following season with the character Mrs. Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), a female agent who was anything but a damsel in distress. 

This fresh move towards portrayal of a liberated woman became a staple for the show throughout the sixties, continuing when Blackman left in 1964 to spend time with another dashing British agent by the name of James Bond in Goldfinger.  Not to be left alone, Steed was quickly given the seductive and charming Mrs. Emma Peel (Rigg), who helped advance the idea of a liberated woman who didn’t need Steed’s help every time she got in trouble, as she defended against attackers with judo, and when the fight was over, still retained her beauty, poise, class, and sexuality.  A wonderful duality that today is sometimes badly attempted by shows like Baywatch.

After Diana Rigg’s departure in 1967, the show attempted to hold its popularity with Steed’s last partner Ms. Tara King (Thorson), a younger woman who could finally end the sexual tension that existed previously between Steed and his partners.  But as Macnee himself once put it, “The Avengers was made for the sixties,” and with that same era of liberated women and free love coming to a close, the show, losing ratings to the number one show of the time, Laugh In, aired it’s last episode in 1969.

Included in this collection of The Avengers are six episodes hand picked by Patrick Macnee, presenting two episodes featuring each of his favorite leading ladies from the show.  The first two episodes with Honor Blackman were well done and well picked by Macnee.  The first episode, “Mr. Teddy Bear,” concentrates on some of the various elements that were common to the show, a wonderful array of gadgetry and a villain who talked through an electronically rigged teddy bear, showing that deep down the show knew it was mainly a farce and didn’t take itself too seriously.  The second episode, “Don’t’ Look Behind You,” was a good choice for its slow and brooding suspense that contrasted with the previous episode. 

While the previous episodes were enjoyable, I really preferred the next two episodes with Diana Rigg.  Not only were the episodes entertaining, but also she and Macnee have an incredible chemistry and playfulness with each other that is wonderful to watch.  Macnee is simply captivating as debonair John Steed throughout all six episodes, never faltering in his performance, and his dialogue never seems forced, it’s almost as if he is John Steed.  Still, I like the episodes with him and Rigg the most and it’s quite easy to see why the shows began airing in America under Rigg and why many warmed to her and Macnee quickly.  These two episodes are also filled with cute double-entendres that were often sprinkled throughout episodes.  Another thing I found amusing in these two episodes but especially “Death at Bargain Prices,” is the way the English downplay everything.  For example, in the aforementioned show Emma and Steed stop a nuclear bomb from going off under the floor of a department store towards the end of an episode, and at the end they’re riding the bikes that they took from the store! 

The last two episodes were mediocre.  Linda Thorson as Ms. Cathy Gale was no comparison to her predecessors and the introduction of the character “Mother” as Steed and Cathy’s boss makes no sense and adds nothing to the story.   Even Macnee admits in his “pre-show commentary” that he hated the character of “Mother” because previously he and his partners just showed up at crime scenes, not reporting to a guy sitting in a pool with phones all around him and sporting a codename that sounds derived from a prison movie.  In fact, these two episodes crossed over from farce to asinine, and are what helped give the set the two and a half star rating.  If you want four-star entertainment, seek it through the episodes with only Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee starring in their respective roles.  

Video **

Since the show ran for nine years, the improvement of quality over time is noticeable.  The first four episodes are in black and white and the first two are horrible.  The picture often looked dull and faded and blacks and grays often blurred together, making dark scenes like in “Don’t Look Behind You” an absolute pain.  As well, the editing from scene to scene seemed to have a last minute quality as well.

There was a noticeable improvement by the third and fourth episodes which, although in black and white, were transferred much better, thus suffering from none of the visual problems the first two episodes did. 

Finally, the last two shows were in full blazing color and were in quite good shape.  I noticed no visible problems in the transfer.  Too bad those were the worst episodes.

Audio **

A 1960’s English television show.  Don’t expect too much here.  The sound worked, and dialogue could usually be heard crisply.       

Supplements **1/2

On the first disc was the “Rare Alternate USA ‘Chessboard’ Opening Sequence with Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee.”  Needless to say, rare or not, that didn’t impress too much.  Also included was the “Ultra-Rare Linda Thorson as Tara King ‘Town Girl’ Promo.”  This was basically a throwaway extra that talked about Thorson’s acting career and where she’s visited in the last few years.  I had a feeling of “who cares?! Give me my ten minutes of life back you stole!!!” 

The only reason this category gets two stars is because of the brilliant “pre-show openers” popping up before every episode that were often filled with a personal moment or insight on the show by Patrick Macnee.  For example, the character of Steed was originally supposed to have a gun, but after his experiences in WWII, Macnee convinced producers to instead allow Steed to be “armed with” an umbrella.   

Summary:

A great show that didn’t take itself too seriously, The Avengers helped revolutionize the way people saw liberated females and sexuality.  It always captured the essence of the era that it came from, yet manages to this day to avoid being dated.