In early 1999, when DVDs were new and their future wasn't ensured, A&E started to release The Avengers on the new format. Unsure of how the market them, these shows were released them in a slightly odd manner, by year rather than season. Over the next couple of years a complete run of the cult classic became available with except the two and a half shows from the first season that still exist, and the first half of the 1962 season. The series sold so well that in 2003 and 2004 both seasons of The New Avengers, an updated version of the show from 1976 were released, and then... nothing. It seemed that A&E wasn't going to release the earliest episodes, something that caused many fans, including myself, to mash their teeth in despair. Then in early 2006 the Emma Peel Mega Collection was re-released, this time with an extra bonus disc (available separately for those who purchased the collection when it was originally put out) that contained the two and a half shows from the first season that had never seen the light of a DVD laser. (Huzzah!) Now Avengers fans can rejoice and finally unclench their teeth. A&E has, at last, collected the missing 14 episodes for the beginning of season two together and released them in a nice attractive set. Included in these shows are Steed's first meeting with Venus Smith (Julie Stevens) and Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman) who would later go on to become his full time partner. While the program is still finding its way with in these episodes, they are quite enjoyable and show hints of what is to come.
The Avengers started in 1961, but the show's genesis actually involves an earlier series, Police Surgeon. (Sounds like something that Quinn Martin would have developed, doesn't it?) Police Surgeon only lasted for 12 episodes in 1960, and it featured Ian Hendry as Dr. Geoffrey Brent. The series wasn't widely watched, but Hendry was critically praised in his role so the producers developed another show around the actor. In this new show he would also play a physician, Dr. David Keel. When his receptionist and fiancé is murdered by some drug dealers the doctor vows to bring her killers to justice. Working with John Steed (Patrick Macnee), a government agent who's also trying to trap the pushers, the pair go about avenging the young girl's death. Taking the dynamic name The Avengers, the show was a hit.
It is interesting to note that in the beginning Hendry was the star
of the show, with Patrick Macnee only in a supporting role. (There
were even a couple of episodes in the first season in which Macnee did
not appear.) As the '61 season was nearing its end however, there
was a strike that stopped production. By the time the strike was
resolved, Hendry had quit the series, deciding to focus on feature film
work instead of TV. This called for some major retooling of the show.
The program would no focus on John Steed's work for the government, protecting
British interests. In this second season Steed had a rotating roster
of three aides who worked with him. There's Venus Smith (Julie Stevens),
a jazz singer in nightclubs who gets tricked into helping Steed and is
a rather reluctant agent. Another helper is Dr. Martin King (Jon
Rollason, apparently the writers weren't paying attention to the social
problems in the US at the time) who is basically a renamed David Keel and
an easy way to use the scripts that were ditched when the first season
was cut short.
The other person who worked with John Steed is a widowed anthropologist who lived in Africa for years, Catherine Gale (Honor Blackman). Mrs. Gale was the first tough female character who does her own fighting to appear on TV, and Blackman does an outstanding job in the role. She's introduced in the first episode of the second season, and quickly wins over the audience. Her feminine beauty and class, quick-witted banter with Steed, and ability to hold her own in a fight make her a great companion. She has all of the characteristics that Diana Rig would later use in fashioning the ultimate tough lady; Emma Peel. Blackman also has a huge amount of screen presence, fitting in very well with Macnee. Her character is the most interesting and capable, and that makes the shows that she is featured in are more fun to watch. The other partners are drab in comparison.
If you are only familiar with the later Emma Peel episodes of The Avengers, these shows might surprise you a little. A lot of the signature traits of The Avengers aren't present yet. The odd, impossible seeming crimes and flamboyant criminals haven't been developed yet. The episodes in this set are more straight mysteries; diamond smuggling, murder, military sabotage and the like. The writers are just getting used to Steed's new role as lead too. He's not always the cool and suave agent from the later seasons, sometimes dressing in something less than the latest fashions. He even goes undercover as a porter on a cruise ship in one episode.
Ironically, the episode that does come the closest to the later seasons
is the very first episode from the second season, Mr. Teddy Bear.
In this show a man is being interviewed on television when he suddenly
stands up, clutches his stomach and falls over dead. It turns out
that he was murdered on prime time TV by a high priced assassin who goes
by the code name Mr. Teddy Bear. When Gale meets the killer while
pretending to hire him, the only thing she sees is a mechanical bear who's
mouth moves in time with the assassin's voice which is broadcast through
a speaker. These odd crimes with unusual villains will later be one
of the show's attractions, but after this episode they went back to more
The humor from the later shows is present though, especially in the Honor Blackman episodes. She and Steed have an interesting relationship. Their back and forth banter has just a touch of sexual tension which adds a nice dimension to the series. In one episode Steed is chastising Gale for having gone bird watching for two whole weeks, and only getting three good pictures. "They're birds! They just don't sit and pose for you." Gale says defending yourself. To which Steed shrugs his shoulders and replies under his breath "They do for me."
Steed's other accomplices in this season aren't very exciting, and it wouldn't be hard to imagine that the show might not have lasted long if Catherine Gale had never appeared. Dr. Martin King, who is featured on three episodes in this set, is a very bland an unexciting character who doesn't really add much to the stories that he's in. His first appearance, in Mission to Montreal, is the worst episode in the set, and the only one that doesn't seem to work at all. While his later stories aren't as bad, he doesn't bring anything to the show.
Venus Smith is a little more interesting, but not by much. The way she came to be associated with Steed is a little odd too, and just didn't ring true. In The Decapod the president of the Balkan Republic is visiting London and his 'secretary' turns up dead. Steed isn't allowed to investigate, since the crime took place in the embassy and technically not on British soil. He wants someone on the inside so he approaches Venus, a jazz singer in a club. He tells her that the Balkan president wants to book her for a singing tour, and then tells the president that the attractive young lady wants to be his new 'secretary.' When the two meet of course they never mention the exact reasons why they are talking, so the misunderstanding lasts most of the episode. The fact that Steed would put an untrained woman into a place where people are dropping like flies without a second thought is rather callous to say the least. He doesn't even warn her that she may be killed. Even in her other episode included with this set Venus doesn't want to be a spy or have anything to do with intrigue. The fact that Steed keeps putting her in dangerous situations makes him less likeable than he is in the other shows.
Another reason the Julie Stevens episodes don't work as well as the
Honor Blackman shows is that Stevens sings in the shows she appears in.
I assume that the producers were trying to give the show a little class
or something, but it only serves to slow the action down and it feels like
padding. (And she sings full songs, not just up to the chorus and
then have her singing in the background while a conversation is occurring.
It's a full number.
These early episodes were never shown in the US until a few years ago. A large reason for that are the production values. English TV in the early 60's was significantly behind the US, and these episodes show it. When you compare these to The Dick Van Dyke Show or Gunsmoke episodes that were airing at the same time, its easy to understand why US network officials didn't want to broadcast them. These shows have the feel of 50's live television. The sets are very spare, the walls will sometimes shake, and the lighting is primitive with people sometimes standing in shadows. The dialog fades when someone turns away from the microphone, and the camera often wobbles when it is moved. Worse than that there was no budget for retakes. Actors flub their lines in just about every episode and if a prop fails, the actors just solider on. In Death of a Great Dane a woman points a gag gun at Steed. It's supposed to open up to reveal a banner saying "Bang!" but the gun doesn't open. The shooter can be seen shaking the gun trying to get it to open and then finally does it by hand. Shaken, she goofs her line, but Macnee delivers his commenting on how amusing the prop is. It was unintentionally comical and I was amazed that an error like that was reshot.
While these episodes aren't as quirky and stylish as the later season would be, the show is still enjoyable. The Mauritius Penny was one of the better episodes, it concerns a man who is killed when he finds that a stamp dealer is offering an incredibly rare stamp up for sale. The slight clues lead to a large plot with a surprise twist at the end (though most viewers won't find the twist all that shocking.) Another good installment is The Big Thinker, where people working on a new computer are suddenly turning up dead. This episode features Mrs. Gale prominently and illustrates that she's just as capable as Steed, in both tracking clues and taking care of herself.
Fans of The Avengers will be very pleased that this last group of shows is finally available for purchase. With these episodes viewers can see the program evolve and grow. They try some new things that fail, but even these experiments are interesting to watch.
The 14 hour long episodes that comprise the first half of the second season (those shows broadcast in 1962) are presented on four DVDs. These are housed in four slimline cases which are packed in slipcase which matches the other Avengers sets. A nice compact package.
The English two channel soundtrack was a little rough. The quality does vary from show to show, but generally the sound is very flat with extremely little range. The voices are distorted in many sections, and there is a bit of hiss in the background. Most of the time it's not hard to understand the dialog, though it is muffled a bit, but there are sections where it's extremely difficult. In Death of a Great Dane, for example, the episode opens with a funeral taking place in the rain. The sound of the rain, which is distorted and noisy, makes it nearly impossible to make out what is being said. Luckily the conversation isn't important, and this is the exception rather than the rule.
Like the audio, the full frame black and white video varies a bit but is acceptable though a little rough. The image is soft and indistinct, and the contrast isn't very great. Dark areas tend to blend in together. Someone wearing a dark shirt will blend into the shadows in the background. The image has a bit of grain to it also. In addition to this, defects in the source video tapes are not rare. Video dropouts pop up in just about every episode and tracking errors will disrupt a frame or two every once in a while. These don't ruin the viewing experience, but they don't enhance it either.
Unfortunately, the only extras included on these discs are photo galleries. Each volume has one. I was really hoping that they would include the first season episodes on this set, since it fits in here unlike the Emma Peel set. Since they didn't do that, the single existing episode of Police Surgeon would have made a nice companion piece. It's too bad they didn't include it.
This is a collection that should be in every Avengers fan's library.
Seeing the first appearances of Catherine Gale, Venus Smith and Dr. Martin
King is a rare treat. It's a lot of fun watching the show evolve
and grow, trying different things and looking for a place for itself.
Though the audio and video are not perfect, I'm sure the economics don't
warrant a thorough restoration, no matter how much we may want one.
For years it looked like A&E was never going to release these shows,
so I'm happy to finally have them, warts and all. More casual fans
may not be as enamored of these shows, though my wife who has seen very
few episodes of The Avengers quite enjoyed the pair she watched
with me. If you've never seen the show before, start with some of
the episodes that feature Diana Rigg and after you're hooked you'll be
dying to see these. Even with the technical limitations of this set,
it is still recommended.