Sunday, February 18, 2018

Classic TV Villain Blogathon-The Cybernauts


Was The Avengers the best TV series ever? Was Diana Rigg the coolest heroine ever? If you answered yes to both, you would have plenty of evidence to support your case. Submitted for your approval (to borrow a phrase from another contender for best TV series ever): the Cybernauts, who have the distinction of being the only villains to appear in the black and white/Emma Peel Avengers, the color/Emma Peel Avengers, and The New Avengers with (gulp!) Gambit and Purdey!

PART ONE: THE CYBERNAUTS (Season 4, episode 3, first aired 16 October 1965)

Written by Philip Levene
Directed by Sidney Hayers

What could have done this?
We get right down to it with the teaser, in which a man in a bathrobe is menaced by a mysterious someone. Bullets don't stop it! We see a gloved fist punch a hole through a wooden door but we don't see the killer. Soon, John Steed and Emma Peel are on the case, investigating the scene of the crime. Steed examines a rifle that has been bent into a curve and we learn that this man is the third victim, each of them rich and powerful. Another murder follows quickly on the heels of the first, and this time we see more of the figure of the killer but we still don't get a good look. Steed and Mrs. Peel again make the scene and we learn that the victims all had business with the Harachi Corp.

Mrs. Peel suspects that an expert karate blow was used, so she visits a karate school, where it looks like one of the students could be a suspect. Mrs. Peel shows off her skills by beating the school's female champion and the sensei remarks that Emma "has the skill of a man." Meanwhile, Steed visits the Harachi Corp. itself, were he secretly photographs documents with a camera hidden in his umbrella! Emma pays a visit to a toymaker and sees a demonstration of a toy robot. Soon, she has enrolled as a student at the karate school and witnesses a demonstration by the top student, a man named Oyama, who happens to be the same man she met at the toy company!

On the trail!
Steed meets Dr. Armstrong at United Automation. Dr. Armstrong is played by the wonderful Hammer Films veteran Michael Gough and he rides around in a motorized wheelchair, telling Steed that machines and computers will be able to do anything humans can. A mysterious man wearing glasses tips off Dr. Armstrong that Steed may not be all that he seems. By the time Steed leaves United Automation, we know who the villains are, but who is the killer?

Yet another murder occurs practically under the noses of our hero and heroine, and this time the victim is a karate expert, effectively eliminating as suspects the students at the karate school. It turns out that Dr. Armstrong is wiping out all of the competing bidders for a new product from the Harachi company. Steed returns to Armstrong's office and breaks in; he finds a mechanical man sitting immobile. Steed hides as Dr. Armstrong and his assistant Benson (the man in glasses) admire the robot and we finally have the solution to the mystery of who (or what) has been doing the killing. The Cybernaut follows a radio signal sent from a fountain pen given to each of the victims, and now he's activated to home in on Steed's location!

Dr. Armstrong
Unfortunately, it's not Steed who has the pen. It's Mrs. Peel! The Cybernaut heads after her and Steed tries to escape from Dr. Armstrong's factory in time. Fortunately for the male viewers, Mrs. Peel happens to be dressed all in black leather. Suspense builds as this damsel in distress waits unaware of the danger coming toward her. But Emma Peel is no weak female! Can her martial arts skill match the strength of a Cybernaut? She leaves home before the Cybernaut arrives, so the answer will have to wait, but meanwhile, Steed has been knocked out by a blow from another Cybernaut who was programmed to capture, not to kill.

Emma drives to Dr. Armstrong's factory and Steed makes his escape. The Cybernaut finds her and things look bleak until Steed saves the day by pitting one Cybernaut against another. One prevails and goes dormant after disabling the other.

A Cybernaut!
"The Cybernauts" is an exciting start to the saga of the mechanical men, with great music and a wonderful use of sound. When the Cybernauts slash their arms down in a karate chopping motion, there is a loud sound of a whip that will be associated with them in each of the two episodes that follow. The style and humor of the show make it a highly entertaining hour, and the gorgeous black and white photography adds immeasurably to the look of the program. The Cybernauts are frightening due to their power, their inhumanity, and their relentless pursuit of their victims. The special effects are primitive but this is overcome by sharp camerawork and a thrilling story. The word Cybernaut is only used once, in the final scene, as Steed fills in a crossword puzzle and Mrs. Peel gives their adversaries a name. The real villain of the piece is Dr. Armstrong and the Cybernauts are his weapons of choice; his memory will continue to cast a shadow over the Avengers when the Cybernauts return.

PART TWO: RETURN OF THE CYBERNAUTS (Season 6, episode 1, first aired 30 September 1967)

Written by Philip Levene
Directed by Robert Day

A Cybernaut in color!
Holy vibrant colors, Batman! The Cybernauts are back and in vivid, living color! There's not much better than watching a TV show from the Batman era, when TV shows discovered all the colors of the rainbow in a big way.

We all know what's coming when a fist is seen breaking down doors and we hear that familiar whip sound. While the Cybernauts were kept off screen in their first appearance, the cat is out of the bag now so there's no reason to hide then on the occasion of their return. This time, they're not killing people but rather knocking them out and kidnapping them. First comes a man in a mansion. Meanwhile, Steed and Peel visit their friend Paul Beresford, played by another great veteran of Hammer Films, Peter Cushing! Two scientists have disappeared and, after Steed and Mrs. Peel leave, a Cybernaut delivers the latest missing person to Beresford, who is both a big flirt when Mrs. Peel is present and also secretly a villain bent on doing away with her and her partner. There's no mystery about the bad guy this time around, especially since his assistant is Benson, the same man in glasses who helped out Dr. Armstrong last time we saw the Cybernauts!

Paul Beresford
A third scientist is kidnapped and brought to Beresford's home after a good session of breaking things and making whipping sounds. The Cybernauts may amble along as slow as zombies, but like Canadian Mounties they always get their man. The color photography in this episode is stunning and director Robert Day makes the most of his opportunity by having a Cybernaut walk though a beautiful green field. Just as the mechanical man brings the latest victim to Beresford, Steed and Mrs. Peel return unexpectedly. They suspect that the Cybernauts are back but they know that Dr. Armstrong, their creator, is dead. In a fun bit of self-reference, Beresford gathers his scientist-prisoners together and shows them black and white clips of John Steed and Emma Peel from "The Cybernauts." It turns out that Paul Beresford is the brother of the late Dr. Armstrong, and he offers a hundred thousand in cash to each scientist who will help him get revenge on the duo that he holds responsible for the death of his beloved sibling. One of the three refuses, so naturally Beresford has a Cybernaut do away with him. He shows the remaining two scientists more black and white clips of Steed and Mrs. Peel in action so they will know their targets.

Mrs. Peel under Beresford's control!
Steed and Mrs. Peel make another visit to Beresford's home, but this time they are being watched by the trio of scientists from behind a two-way mirror. Steed reveals that he is tracking down the late Dr. Armstrong's next of kin, which worries Beresford enough that he dispatches a Cybernaut to kill Armstrong's lawyer. Steed arrives soon after the murder and is himself knocked out by the Cybernaut. Meanwhile, the scientists work from their jail cells until one escapes and seeks refuge with Mrs. Peel. A Cybernaut tracks him down, knocks out Mrs. Peel, and captures the rogue scientist. The two remaining scientists draw up plans for perpetual torture. Steed and Mrs. Peel think they are getting closer to their objective when Beresford calls and offers information on Dr. Armstrong, but the scientists have invented a wristwatch that will turn our heroes into human Cybernauts!

Beresford gives Mrs. Peel one of the watches as a gift and asks her to wear it the next day, while his assistant breaks into Steed's office and replaces a watch with a deadly counterfeit. The next day, Mrs. Peel dons the watch and Beresford activates it by remote control. She immediately turns into a human Cybernaut and drives to Beresford's home, followed closely by Steed, who fortunately forget to wear his watch. At the Beresford estate, Paul toys with Emma until Steed arrives, then he sends her outside to take care of her partner. Mrs. Peels knocks out Steed and when he awakens he is inside the home, where Paul reveals his true identity.

Steed in a thoughtful moment.
The bumbling scientists try to put a watch on Steed so that he will also become a human Cybernaut, but they mistakenly put it on a Cybernaut, which runs amok. Steed frees Mrs. Peel and the Cybernaut attacks Beresford. In the end, Mrs. Peel crushes the remote control device and the Cybernaut goes dormant, allowing Steed to push it over with a finger.

"Return of the Cybernauts" is a delightful sequel, in which the colors explode off the screen and Peter Cushing makes a worthy successor to his fictional brother and fellow Hammer Films veteran, Michael Gough. The use of the black and white clips from the prior episode is a clever way to remind viewers of what has gone before, and The Avengers, as always, has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek and does not shy away from self-referential humor.

PART THREE: THE LAST OF THE CYBERNAUTS . . . ? (The New Avengers, Season 1, episode 3, first aired 31 October 1976)

Written by Brian Clemens
Directed by Sidney Hayers

When in his wheelchair, Felix Kane dresses
like he's in a British Invasion band.
Alas, nothing lasts forever, except maybe the Cybernauts! Mrs. Peel was long gone and Tara King was as good as forgotten when the Avengers returned in the fall of 1976. Steed's new partners were Mike Gambit, a James Bond type, and Purdey, who was to be saddled with some of the most embarrassing outfits in the history of fashion. A birthday party for Steed is interrupted when a dying agent staggers in to say that a double agent has been identified as Felix Kane. The next day, Steed watches from his car as Kane meets his contact in a parking lot. A car chase follows and Kane appears to die in a fiery crash.

A year passes and it's another birthday party for Steed, who stoically recalls what happened to Kane the year before. Meanwhile, a man named Frank Goff is released from prison and immediately kidnapped and taken to the lair of a mysterious, masked man in a wheelchair, who is obsessed with killing Steed and his new partners. Goff once worked with Dr. Armstrong, who created the Cybernauts, and the masked man wants to know the location of a storehouse of Cybernauts that Dr. Armstrong hid before he died. Goff leads the way to the hidden storehouse and we learn that Goff built the mechanical men to Dr. Armstrong's specifications. Bit by bit, Steed learns that Goff was let out of prison and has disappeared; as soon as a Cybernaut is up and running, the masked man has the Cybernaut kill Goff, whom he plans to replace with a genius. It seems the masked man wants to take the Cybernauts further than they have been taken before!

When fitted with Cybernaut parts,
Kane favors a Chairman Mao look.
After Steed learns of Goff's death, a Cybernaut captures Professor Mason, who has been experimenting with cybernetics, and threatens harm to his daughter unless the professor helps with his dastardly plan. Steed investigates the professor's disappearance and confirms his suspicions: that familiar, whip-like sound, the inefficacy of bullets, the mangled iron gates all suggest that the Cybernauts have returned! Steed's new partners have read the old files and comment that Steed, who never worries, is worried. Scenes alternate between the masked man and Professor Mason working on their secret plan and Steed and his partners piecing together what is going on. Steed visits Mason's lab and is knocked out by a Cybernaut that has come to take a key piece of equipment.

Gambit and Purdey head for the location of a man named Foster, who knows why Goff was released from prison a day early, but they arrive too late and see that a Cybernaut has already killed the man. A thrilling battle on a long and winding staircase ensues and Gambit and Purdey succeed in destroying the Cybernaut by knocking it over a railing. It falls a long way to the landing and loses its mechanical head. Steed examines the severed head and an agent brings shocking news: a fingerprint recovered from the noggin belongs to the late double agent, Felix Kane!

Is this really the last of the Cybernauts?
Two weeks later, Professor Mason has finished his work and outfits the masked man, whom we now know is the very much alive but horribly scarred Felix Kane, with Cybernaut legs, an arm, and torso-covering armor, making him the first Cybernaut-human hybrid! He dons a purple suit and cap over his metal parts, making him resemble a cross between Chairman Mao and Prince, and heads for Purdey's home. Professor Mason manages to warn Steed, and he races to Purdey's house as she battles the Kane-bernaut in a thrilling exchange of karate blows in the confined space of her living room. Kane is more mobile than the typical Cybernaut and Purdey can't escape, so it's a good thing Steed and Gambit arrive with handy aerosol cans of Plastic Skin, which they spray liberally over Kane and soon render him immobile, in what is a rather silly and sad finish to the last of the Cybernauts.

Despite the less than stirring color, in comparison to that used in "Return of the Cybernauts," Purdey's embarrassing outfits, and her forced attempts at witty banter, "The Last of the Cybernauts . . .?" is a worthy conclusion to the Cybernaut trilogy.


Steed is on the case!
The three episodes of The Avengers to feature the Cybernauts form one long, continued story. In the first part, Dr. Armstrong uses the mechanical men to try to enrich himself, but his plans are foiled by John Steed and Emma Peel. In the second, Dr. Armstrong's brother seeks revenge on the duo because he holds them responsible for the death of his sibling. In the third, Felix Kane blames Steed and his partners for his horrible injuries and wants to use Cybernauts to exact his own vengeance. The two Diana Rigg episodes are the strongest and they are aided in large measure by the presence of Michael Gough and Peter Cushing. The 1976 episode is enjoyable, but Purdey is no match for Mrs. Peel.

The best TV series ever? The coolest heroine ever? Oh yes, and the best and scariest robots ever? You bet!

Watch "The Cybernauts" online here. Watch "Return of the Cybernauts" here. "The Last of the Cybernauts . . . ?" is not available online but is on DVD. Thanks to The Complete Avengers by Dave Rogers (NY: St. Martin's Press, 1989) for confirming air dates.

Be sure to check out our blogathon's promotional video here and to look for other participants in the Classic TV Villain blogathon listed here.

--Jack Seabrook


Rick29 said...

I enjoyed all three AVENGERS episodes with the Cybernauts! I remember being delighted by their first appearance, wondering as a kid: "What is the heck is this?" And I think that Michael Gough and Peter Cushing may be two of the best villains on the entire run of THE AVENGERS. The first episode may be my favorite, though your photos from the follow-up are sending me to my "Emma Peel Megaset" to watch it. Mrs. Peel looks quite charming in her pink dress (OK...she always looked charming).

Unknown said...

What I remember about that first Cybernauts episode is that it was the first episode of The Avengers to air in the USA.
Monday night, March 26, 1966, 10 pm, 9 pm Central time, on the ABC network.
A year or so before, I'd read a feature in TV Guide, about this strange adventure show that had already become a cult of sorts in Great Britain.
This was during the Honor Blackman days, when The Avengers was on the old 408-line videotape that was incompatible with every other TV transmission system in the world.
Robert Musel, who covered British and European TV for TVG, wrote about how many critics in GB were uncertain about whether The Avengers was a serious adventure, or a spoof - or perhaps both?
Not long after the US TV Guide write-up, the producers decided to start filming The Avengers, the better to encourage international sales (Target #1 was, of course, the USA).
ABC's decision to schedule the show in springtime, not a prime period for launching a series, indicates that the American net only considered it as a placeholder: after all, it was British, for gosh sakes, and it was in black-and-white at the time that everything was going to color, and who ever heard of this Diana Rigg anyhow?
That The Avengers in fact did catch on - Diana Rigg in particular - nobody saw that coming, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.

When ABC started promoting The Avengers, they had Patrick Macnee record a voiceover to run over closing credits:

Clever they are,
Clever they may be,
But no matter how clever the foe,
We're always more cleverer than he!
This is Patrick Macnee.
Join Diana Rigg and me on-
Monday night at 10 - 9 Central Time!

I wonder if anybody taped that at home - you really have to hear how Macnee milked this for the network.

Now I'm going to the Old DVD Wall, to look up the three shows in question.
Back later, maybe ...

Citizen Screen said...

I've never seen these episodes as my Avengers viewing has been spotty at best. I adore the actors on the show though. Thanks so much for the online links. I may well watch these during the week. A terrific write-up that has made me want to drop everything to watch. Fun read too!


Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Rick! It was wonderful to see Gough and Cushing again. They are two terrific actors.

Mike, I've never heard that Macnee voiceover. He always seems to have been up for a bit of fun. I was too young to see the premiere but I remember seeing an episode at a party my parents attended sometime in the late '60s.

Aurora, thanks for your comment! I enjoyed writing this post.

Mitchell Hadley said...

I remember first seeing the Cybernauts after many years of watching Doctor Who, and of course the first thing I think of is the Cybermen, but it didn't take long to appreciate these characters on their own merit. I first came to The Avengers in the middle of the run, before I watched it all the way through from the beginning, and the Cybernauts were very much a part of becoming an Avengers fan. Good memories, great piece!

Joanna said...

Their faces!? UGH--such scariness. The rigid lack of emotion in the Cybernauts is nightmarish. You can't forget a good classic TV villain :) Thanks for the reminder.

AndyDecker said...

Great write-up. I must have been eight or nine when I watched the first episode for the first time, and I never forgot it :) The terrible "whack" of the Cybernauts, robots in action, Mrs.Peel, wonderful memories. It started a lifelong interest for the genre.

Daniel B? said...

I have never seen an episode of The Avengers. But, I have ALMOST seen it many, many times. This write-up is probably going to send me after the show finally. Thank you!

Jack Seabrook said...

Andy, I think The Avengers may have set me off on a lifelong love for the genre, same as you!

Daniel, thanks for reading and commenting. I hope you enjoy the shows!

Toby O'B said...

For me, Gough was the best as the human villain which speaks volumes as I love the work of Peter Cushing. I have yet to see the third entry but may yet find a way. It had been a long time since seeing it, but I thought the episode with Christopher Lee was a Cybernaut story with them in the next stage of development, to look human. Like I said it's been ages since I saw it. Thanks for a great story about them!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Tony! I'll check the book I have regarding the Lee episode and get back to you.

Jack Seabrook said...

Toby (not Tony, sorry!)--I checked Dave Rogers's detailed summary of the Christopher Lee episode and it definitely was not the Cybernauts. However, the teaser at the beginning of that episode has Mrs. Peel watching "The Cybernauts" on TV, so maybe that's what you recall!