I’m virtually a newcomer to this series, nearly 60 years after it was made, but I do have a vague memory of watching one or two episodes as a child. Just about the only thing that sticks in the mind from those viewing experiences is the Cybernauts. I can’t say for certain if it was this episode, or one of its sequels, but they are a big part of why I wanted to see The Avengers eventually. Much like the Cybermen in Doctor Who, they terrified me as a child.
The comparison with their Doctor Who counterparts is interesting. They lack the scariest factor of their closest sci-fi relatives, which is the conversion of humans, but they are still incredibly creepy for the same reason: metal men, close enough to the human form and human features to trigger the uncanny valley response in the viewer. Apart from the karate chopping motion of attack that also features with the early Cybermen*, there the similarity ends, although the reinvention of the Cybermen for Rise of the Cybermen in 2006 rewrites their origins with basically the same idea as The Cybernauts: a wheelchair-bound technology obsessive, who wants to replace imperfect humans with perfect machines.
Right from the opening sequence it’s clear that this episode is going to be a stone cold classic. The direction is superb for a start. In the opening sequence, the camera suddenly swings around at the sound of breaking glass, using the camera lens as if it’s another person in the room, while something is smashing through the door. Then, when it breaks through, instead of seeing the invader the camera lens becomes the invader, zooming steadily in on the victim, and bullets aren’t stopping or even slowing the approach. It’s an amazing start to the episode, and we know immediately we’re in for something very special here.
We are kept in suspense for over half an hour before we actually get to see a Cybernaut, but in the meantime we can enjoy a story with an excellent cast, which is like a Who’s Who of 60s television: Michael Gough, Frederick Jaeger, Bernard Horsfall, Burt Kwouk, John Hollis, Ronald Leigh-Hunt; all amazing actors at the top of their game here. There is such a big and talented cast for this one that John Franklyn-Robbins isn’t even deemed worthy of a credit at the end.
When we finally get to see a Cybernaut it is very frightening, and what eventually follows is a race against time to save Emma, who is unaware of the significance of the pen that Steed gave to her. This works so well because of the effectiveness of the dramatic irony. We probably figure out before Steed why the robots have been apparently killing people for pens, but we certainly know about it long before Emma. The sequence plays with our expectations because Steed doesn’t actually get there in time. While the phone is ringing, the Cybernaut is smashing its way through her door… and then it gets even more scary because another of them is after Steed as well. By the time he was trying to quietly shuffle behind it towards the door my nerves were in tatters. This is the most exciting and frightening episode of The Avengers so far, by a considerable margin.
The chase in the warehouse at the end is equally brilliant, although the writer cheats a bit. Having gone to great lengths to explain the technology – the Cybernauts are homing in on the pens – all of a sudden one turns up that doesn’t need to do that and can think for itself. It’s a lazy way to raise the stakes, which doesn’t really fit very well with what we have been told, but it doesn’t really matter too much because it’s all such nail-biting stuff. Even when two Cybernauts are fighting each other they are still frightening, and it even feels like a dangerous moment when it’s all over and Steed and Emma are examining the dormant robot. It falls to the ground with the jab of a finger, but I wouldn’t have wanted to get that close to the thing, inactive or not!
Sometimes we can look back on a childhood memory of a television show and wonder why it scared us at the time, when we watch again with adult eyes. Not the Cybernauts. We’re even closer now to a world where a walking metal man could smash through a door. Don’t have nightmares. RP
* Take no notice of the ill-informed people who contribute reviews to other sites such as IMDb, and don’t bother to do the most basic of research: the Cybermen do not predate the Cybernauts. This episode of The Avengers was first shown in October 1965. The Cybermen in Doctor Who debuted in The Tenth Planet, in October 1966. To what extent the one influenced the other is a matter of conjecture.
The view from across the pond:
The title alone was enough to catch my attention but add the initial murder to the mix and I was hooked. Based on the strength of the attacker, the bullets-of-no-effect and the bent shotgun, I knew we were dealing with something in the realm of sci-fi. What I epically failed to do, however, was pay attention to the guest cast and holy cow did this have a cast. Now, those of you who joined our website in recent years may not have read all the gushing Roger and I have done over the early years of Doctor Who, but suffice to say: we’re fans. This episode has a cornucopia of Who stars with Bernard Horsfall (the Time Lord of the knowing nod, Gulliver, and Chancellor Goth), Burt Kwouk (Kato from The Pink Panther and Lin Futu), Michael Gough (The Celestial Toymaker himself, Councilor Hedin and Albert Pennyworth from Batman), and Fredrick Jaeger (Jano, Prof Marius but most notable of all, Sorenson). To add to the fun, the villain of the piece is building an army of Cybermen. What you should take into account is that this aired in October of 1965, a year earlier than Doctor Who introduced us to the Cybermen.
Now, the episode does deserve praise, but it also has some weak bits, not the least of which is how everyone with a gun shoots at the ceiling. There’s a sequence where the audience is subjected to watching a blip on a screen approach another blip on the screen and all the while the music (thankfully not the drums of headache-ery) is ramping up to indicate mounting tension while the camera cuts back and forth between Emma, the clock, and the blippy screen… and on it went. It wasn’t terrible but it wasn’t easy viewing and I found myself opening IMDb at that point. One further complaint: I’ve had more years of my life in an office than those early halcyon days of not having to work. It’s a bit sad really but we all get here eventually. I have been in many buildings and my current job alone has had me in three over the last decade and a half. You know what we’ve never had? Vents that you can drive down. I mean, those vents are SO over-the-top in their massive size that it’s laughable. First off, air wouldn’t disperse very well from there; it would be a waste of energy and second, it’s a massive waste of space. Imagine how much of the building has to be given over to massive ducts? Talk to Bruce Willis about the size of a modest duct and then come back to me.
Somewhere in the middle range of emotions, I like that Emma is as skilled in her career as Cathy Gale was and her Karate fight proves her abilities, but perhaps not the acting of anyone on screen. It ends in a claw to the knee that was just as jaw-droppingly bad as the non-karate chop to the neck that felled her opponent. However, moving into the good stuff, I actually like that Steed’s umbrella is getting some cool use and we’re seeing a bit more James Bond with the tools Steed employs. Retrospectively, I have to give credit to the metal bowler hat from two episodes ago now as I see his arsenal of tools increasing.
Where I need to absolutely applaud the writers of the episode is the prediction about computers. In effect, Dr. Armstrong (Gough) is predicting ChatGBT in 1966. When Steed says that the tech is not developed enough for what Armstrong is predicting, Armstrong replies, “It will be, in time.” And he’s absolutely right. It talks about how AI will be able to create music at least as good as the classic composers, among other things. From a narrative perspective, this is perhaps one of the most powerful episodes we’ve seen to date and it predated our own favorite Doctor Who villain by a year to boot! And hey, the final battle between two “Cybernauts” isn’t half bad either although the warehouses full of boxes in maze-like patterns is more than a bit cliché.
So season 3 had me bored and season 4 is shaping up nicely. It’s still got a lot of the signature traits that I didn’t like but I can see they’re making strides in the right direction and that’s the important bit. This episode is conceptually incredible and worthy of praise. Now, maybe we can come up with a story where Sorenson teams up with the Celestial Toymaker against the Time Lords Goth and Hedin…. No? Ok, wishful thinking. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: Death at Bargain Prices
Such parallel in another franchise to a most familiar Dr. Who monster, like between the Cybermen and the Borg most notoriously, can be expected in a time when the concerns of machines replacing our humanity were overwhelming enough for any fiction to somehow symbolize it. Making such a menacing force into an adversity for Steed and Mrs. Peel, before Dr. Who’s Cybermen were born, is certainly even more thought-provoking in retrospect. Thank you both for your reviews.
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“The Cybernauts” was the first Avengers episode to air in the USA, on March 28, 1966.
The American ABC network picked the show up with no more intention than as a spring-summer fill-in; after all, it was in B&W, and the network was going full-color that fall.
That The Avengers caught on at all took ABC/US by surprise: not only did it get a big audience, but the newspaper “critics” went for it majorly – especially for Diana Rigg.
Theory: ABC/US chose this particular episode as the debut because the “guest star” was Michael Gough, who had a USA following of sorts from his Hammer horror movies (might be wrong about that …).
Anyway, once the “summer hit” thing happened, ABC/US called up ABC/GB and told them that if future Avengers shows could be filmed in color, the show might have a future in USA prime time …
… and the rest is History.
But I see by your schedule that you won’t be getting to those until next year –
– well, I’m getting older, but I can wait … I think …
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Yes, one episode a week, right through the entire run, but there are a lot of episodes, so a lot of weeks 🙂
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