||The Cybernauts was the first episode of British adventure series The Avengers broadcast on American television, and it was an immediate success, but back across the Pond, it had been one of ITV's biggest hits for a number of years, surviving cast changes in the process. Patrick Macnee was the stable force at the centre of the plots, his John Steed the impeccable English gent, unflappable (usually) in the face of increasingly bizarre mysteries to solve, alongside his female partner. What made this stand out was that the woman in this relationship was no cringing victim to be rescued every week, she could rescue herself quite capably.
Though Honor Blackman was beloved as Cathy Gale for much of the first half of the nineteen-sixties, Emma Peel was the standout character after she replaced her. Diana Rigg showed she still had what it took to be supercool in Game of Thrones in her eighties, but it was Mrs Peel who created that air, her self-confidence, wit and physicality rendering her a match for any man - or machine. In 1965's The Cybernauts it was clear from early on that the assassins killing off company bosses were not your average hitmen, using a lethal karate that Peel realises was too strong to be drawn from a person, and Steed investigates to find their origin.
Now, the villain in this story was a man in a wheelchair, there's no getting around that, but he was played by Michael Gough who was such the consummate bad guy in properties like this that you tended to forgive the out of date representation, since Gough would obviously be evil no matter if he could walk or not, and this was almost immediately post-Dr Strangelove, as portrayed on film by Peter Sellers. Considering the budget was not high, producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell did very well with what they had thanks to the ingenuity of the writers; the Cybernauts were created by Philip Levene for what was regularly regarded as one of the best of the whole run.
There was some debate, or there has been since at least, whether the Cybermen on Doctor Who were created before or after the Cybernauts here, and certainly this lot beat the cyborgs to the screen. Although the Cybermen are a lot more famous, and have endured further, many impressionable minds of the day recall how scared they were of The Avengers stories to feature them, equal to the Doctor's foes, and lest we forget, the Cybernauts are fully automated, not made of living bodies. As ever, Macnee and Rigg worked wonderfully together, completely complementing styles that were never too arch, yet saw the humour as much as the peril.
Two years later, Levene was still writing for the show and brought back his most celebrated menace for Return of the Cybernauts, though technically there was only one to contend with his time. The real star was guesting Peter Cushing, brought in to play the aggrieved brother of the Gough character and wanting vengeance against Steed and Mrs Peel, yet not in the manner you might anticipate. The original mad scientist had the plan to make Britain into a land run by his fascistic robots, because it was always some fascistic menace that our heroes had to overcome, while his sibling was more intent on a smaller scale tyranny.
That the Avengers were more often not out to save their own skin but that of someone else, though there were scrapes along the way, marked this out as an unusual way to kick off what was technically Rigg's final series, as a few episodes later she would leave to allow Linda Thorson as Tara King to take her place, and the quality was judged to have declined thereafter, however unfairly that was. Back at Return of the Cybernauts, what seems like a typical science gone wrong scenario plays out as boffins kidnapped by the robot are brought to Cushing's country house where they are bribed with thousands of pounds to contrive a terrible fate for the protagonists.
You might have pondered there were easier methods to gain vengeance, but this unfolded with the main guest star selling the idea this was a reasonable course of action for a man eaten up with anger he rarely allows to bubble to the surface, and predictably Cushing was every bit the professional. Among the other guests were Fulton Mackay, The Lovely Aimi MacDonald and Charles Tingwell, and Gough's assistant Frederick Jaeger was back too, suggesting there was more than one man thirsting for satisfaction. The mastermind's interest in Mrs Peel goes beyond charm when we discover his scheme, a neat bit of cruelty to offset the japery. Not quite up to the original, but relishable.
The original series had lasted practically the whole of the sixties, and is one of the most identifiable items of pop culture from that era, but all good things come to an end and so Steed and Tara lifted off on their final excursion just before the end of 1969. However, Clemens and Fennell continued to find work in television and film, and after a period decided to bring the whole shebang back in 1976 as The New Avengers. It was a hit in Britain, but behind the scenes production issues meant it was not the show they wanted it to be for much of its run, and as America did not embrace it, it lasted one half year before the plug was pulled for good.
They did connect it to the past in various ways, however, and one of those ways was bringing back the Cybernauts too. Sidney Hayers was recruited to direct, having helmed the first Cybernauts entry over ten years before, though Levene had since passed away, so Clemens penned the script by combining elements of Levene's work for a new storyline. This time, the new lot - returning Macnee, Joanna Lumley as Purdey and Gareth Hunt as Gambit (to take care of the action Macnee couldn't manage anymore, though he frequently gave way for his stuntman in the sixties anyway) – were responsible for the serious injury of a double agent (Robert Lang) a year before.
Now he's back with a resurrected robot and the original engineer (Robert Gillespie) to activate it, but in a wheelchair like Gough and hidden beneath a collection of expression-bearing masks. He's basically Davros, creator of the Daleks, to confuse your Doctor Who lore, but eventually transformed into a Cyberman, sorry, Cybernaut himself to go after the team. Clemens was careful to include the humour (business with a Stylophone, the technique used to best the baddie, and so on) as well as the eccentricity channelled through the science fiction aspects, but it was not as smooth this time around. Nevertheless, you can understand why the better instalments have their fans, and Clemens was no slouch as a writer by any means, so The Last of the Cybernauts...?? was not a bad send-off for the mechanical menaces.
You can order a Blu-ray of The Cybernaut Trilogy from Network, all lovingly restored and as a bonus with the option to watch them with advert breaks of the commercials contemporary to the episodes, which is loads of fun. Not least because among them they unearthed a bit with Diana Rigg plugging British Airways for the seventies breaks - cheeky. Click here to buy from the Network website.