J. Ferguson casts a critical eye over Avengers International, another of Brian Clemens' unsuccessful attempts to revive a TV classic.

By 1985, it had been eight years since the last New Avengers episode premiered. Following the series' demise, there had been numerous attempts to resurrect The New Avengers, attempts which continued well into the early Eighties; however, by this time, it was clear that that particular incarnation of the series would not return. The 1978 Escapade pilot, written by Brian Clemens in an attempt to create an Avengersesque show for American television, failed to develop into a series, despite some location scouting taking place and a second script being written. The First Avengers Movie had come to nothing, and there would be no Avengers movie, in any form, until 1998. Despite this string of failed projects, Brian Clemens was persistent, and conceived yet another project in an attempt to return The Avengers to the small screen.

The result was a new pilot, Avengers International, dated March 1985, and penned by Clemens himself. The episode itself is entitled, quite fittingly, Reincarnation, and does exactly what it says on the tin. The plot is essentially the Tara King episode Split! spliced with Dead Men are Dangerous. Five years before the events of the episode, Steed killed Russian double agent Bobby Lomax during an operation intended to catch Lomax in the act of passing on state secrets. Unbeknownst to Steed, the Russians preserved Lomax's brain, and have now perfected a surgical procedure capable of transplanting the brain's essential components - those holding memory and personality - into a new, fresh, donor body. Bent on exacting revenge against his killer, Lomax, now unrecognisable in his new body, means to kill Steed. Word of Steed's impending assassination gets out, reaching the ears of both Steed's cohort, Samantha Peel, and American agent Christopher Cambridge. Despite their combined urgings for Steed to take care, Steed, understandably, is disinclined to believe that he is being targeted by a dead man. Until, that is, Lomax puts in an appearance and tries to kill Steed, an attempt narrowly averted by Sam, and which results in Lomax's second death. This doesn't stop Lomax from returning from the dead two more times, even as Chris and Sam attempt to get to the bottom of Lomax's ability to "reincarnate".

After writing The First Avengers Movie as a foursome, Clemens apparently came to the conclusion that four Avengers was one Avenger too many, and for this script dropped his principal cast down to a more manageable three. However, the majority of the script focuses on Chris and Sam investigating as a duo, while Steed takes a back seat. Indeed, Steed's primary roles in the story are to bring Chris and Sam together, and then to serve, in a sense, as the script's MacGuffin, the impetus behind Chris and Sam's investigation and pursuit of Lomax. Steed features heavily at the start and end of the story, but very little in the middle, garnering perhaps as much screen time as Patrick Newell would in a particularly Mother-heavy Tara King episode. Presumably by 1985, Clemens had seen the writing on the wall, and where even five years before he had written Steed as taking an active part in the proceedings, now, with Patrick having just turned 63, he knew the likelihood of him being either unwilling or unable to take on a major, action-heavy role in the series was high.

The lack of Steed is ironic given Macnee's complaint at being "put out to pasture" during The New Avengers, which led Clemens to pare down Gambit's role in favour of Steed. While the legitimacy of that complaint is up for debate, there's no question that Steed's role in Avengers International has been circumscribed. Even Steed himself makes this clear. Despite Sam's protestations that he is "still on the active list", Steed refutes this by pointing out that he now spends his days meeting with dignitaries and heads of state and government, rather than scrambling over the Berlin Wall. The episode ends with Steed informing Chris and Sam that they will be working together as a permanent team, taking on assignments on both sides of the Atlantic, and the final scene is laid out in such a way that Chris and Sam are horseriding side by side, with Steed a way ahead, separate and apart. Presumably at that point in his life, Macnee's loyalty to the series would be strong enough for him to be willing play a part in a new series, but not one so large that it would prevent him from doing other things. Macnee had actually speculated during the run of The New Avengers that it would perhaps be better if he dropped out, leaving Gareth Hunt and Joanna Lumley to continue on the series without him, as a twosome. If Avengers International had made it to the screen, this may well have been how things unfolded, with Steed putting in appearances in early episodes to connect the new series with its forebears, then being phased out once the new characters were well-established and able to stand on their own. The series could then grow and evolve without him. In terms of ensuring the show's longevity, this would probably have been the best way to bring The Avengers back to TV, short of recasting Steed altogether and starting the series from scratch.

As an Avengers episode, Reincarnation hits all the requisite beats, starting with a pre-credits sequence to build up interest, leading into a first act that sets up the threat (and introduces the characters), and then segueing into an investigation that sees Chris and Sam making inquiries. Their interviewees include Lomax's ex-mistress, and the requisite Avengers eccentrics. The latter on this occasion includes a man named Weir who fervently believes in reincarnation, keeps animals he is convinced are the next iterations of his friends and family, and claims to have undergone the process of reincarnation several times himself. He is closely followed by wigmaker Thatcher, who bases all of his creations on weaves more commonly utilised for cottage roofs. Chris and Sam eventually wind up at the hospital at which Lomax is receiving his brain transplants, freeing an imprisoned scientist and defeating the mastermind behind the plot in the process, before rushing off to save Steed from Lomax number three, though Steed deals with him on his own. The denouement cements the idea of the trio working as a team, and is somewhat in the same mould as the whistling scene at the end of The Eagle's Nest. On the whole, it feels like an Avengers episode, perhaps not one that would rate among the best the show had to offer, but a middle-of-the-road effort that could sit quite comfortably next to everything that had come before without looking out of place.

Like any Avengers effort, though, the new series would have lived or died depending on the audience's reception of the new characters, and it's here that some problems arise, especially in the case of Samantha Peel. The name alone should give some inkling as to what those problems might be. Seemingly determined to return to the series' glory years, Clemens resurrects the ghost of Emma Peel. Of course, by 1985, Diana Rigg was no longer in her late twenties, but well into her forties, and likely wouldn't have reprised her role in any case. The script gives us the next best thing, a virtual Emma clone in essentially everything but (first) name. Sam might be one of several daughters of an English lord as opposed to the heir of an industrialist, but that detail aside, Emma and Sam's biographies are more or less identical. Sam is Emma's daughter-in-law, the wife of Emma's son with Peter Peel, who is also called, predictably, "Peter". As if it weren't stretching the bonds of credulity enough to have Steed working with yet another Mrs Peel who describes herself as a "talented amateur", it transpires that Peter Peel the second inherited his father's rotten luck along with his name. As Sam tells Chris, her husband was an agent who let her tag along on his missions, until he went to Eastern Europe on assignment and never came back. Four years on, Sam, just like Emma before her, has no idea whether she is a widow or not. If it weren't bad enough that Sam inherited Emma's character wholesale, it also transpires that she was gifted with Emma's Lotus Elan, which she drives just as expertly as her predecessor. And when Sam isn't borrowing from her namesake, she cribs from another of her predecessors: like Cathy Gale before her, she studied anthropology. About her only really original feature is her abode, a large converted warehouse by the Thames with huge floor to ceiling bookshelves, a set that would have looked fantastic onscreen.

With so much borrowed history behind her, it's difficult to see Sam as anything more than a cipher for Emma, with few unique attributes of her own. She's a placeholder where the viewer would unquestioningly rather see either the real thing, or a completely new character. Even the character's Christian name is a second-hand Emma cast-off. "Samantha" - "Mantha" for short, to emphasise her masculine characteristics - was the name initially given to the Emma Peel character before Marie Donaldson had her "Man Appeal/M-Appeal" brainwave. All of this factors rather uncomfortably into her relationship with Steed, with whom she shares a "special bond". At best, Steed could be seen as a father figure to Sam, with their relationship resembling that between Steed and Tara King. At worst, depending on the viewer's interpretation of the nature of Steed and Emma's relationship, his relationship with Sam could come across as vaguely incestuous.

If Clemens was so keen to play on the audience's memory of Emma to draw viewers to the new series, he would have been better off letting his Avengers girl be her own woman, and confining himself to references to the Emma Peel character to connect the two series. The script is rife with references to Emma as it is, even beyond her relation to Sam. Throughout the course of the episode, we learn that Emma has been made a Dame (Brian Clemens showing a remarkable amount of prescience, as Diana Rigg herself would be made one nine years later), and that Steed packs a framed photo of Emma in his luggage when he goes on holiday. Emma is also mentioned by Bobby Lomax, who reminds Steed that while they both vied for her affections, Lomax was left out in the cold (shades of Prendergast from The Joker). Emma isn't the only Avengers girl to be namechecked, however. Cathy Gale is referenced obliquely when Steed mentions that "there was once another Cathy in my life." A pair of references to Purdey come in the form of in-jokes which play on the fact that her character's namesake was an expensive shotgun. Steed at one point informs Sam that he was showing Chris "his Purdey" shotgun. "Mrs. Peel reacts to this name!" exclaims the script, clearly implying that Sam is familiar with Purdey as one of Steed's ex-partners without actually having her say so. These references are welcome, as they serve the same function as similar references to Steed's previous partners did in The New Avengers. They draw on the show's extensive past, connecting the new series to the old, and hint at a broader Avengers universe that exists above and beyond the largely episodic, continuity-free nature of the series, in which the status quo was usually reinstated at the end of each adventure. This was something the show could have done with more of, as it was more realistic for Steed's previous partners to be mentioned occasionally rather than not at all. It also rewards longtime viewers who remember the old characters, while not interfering with the enjoyment of viewers unaware of the show's past. The only disadvantage is that the repeated references to Emma, as well as to Cathy and Purdey, would inevitably lead to Sam being constantly compared to her predecessors, which could have harmed the audience's acceptance of the character.

While much of Sam's character is borrowed from elsewhere, American agent Christopher Cambridge proves to be almost the polar opposite. He is a largely original character, seemingly created from whole cloth by Clemens. Granted, there are flashes of influence - the script goes so far to describe the tall, attractive, formally-attired Chris as Steed's "American alter ego", just as "urbane and immaculate" as Steed himself. That said, there is some of Gambit in Chris as well, namely in the way Clemens describes both his attire and his fighting style. The former is described as consisting of well-tailored, expensive, but discreetly cut and coloured suits which allow him to blend into his surroundings with a degree of anonymity. Gambit's wardrobe - namely his suits - was selected using similar reasoning, i.e. to allow him to blend in wherever his work took him, from the Ministry to the corridors of Whitehall. This was the explanation Clemens gave to Gareth Hunt when the latter voiced his preference for Gambit to be more casually attired. Chris is also thoughtful, and plans his next move carefully. He avoids violence as much as possible, eschews guns (like Steed), and repeatedly insists to Sam that "brains" are his weapon of choice, his modus operandi being to think his way out of a problem, and only fight his way out when absolutely necessary. Even his choosing to wear eyeglasses is strategic. Chris reasons that people are reluctant to hit someone wearing glasses, and that that fraction of a second of hesitation buys him an advantage when he finds himself in a tight corner. When he does resort to violence, his fighting style is described in much the same way as Gambit's was in early character profiles, with Chris bursting from relative stillness into a blur of speed. But despite these similarities, Chris feels like his own character, not simply Steed or Gambit with an American gloss.

Ironically, considering his largely anti-violence stance, Chris gets the best of the fight/action sequences in the story, whereas Sam's most notable action scene is not a fight, but her successful attempt to board a moving train in her introductory scene. She seems to rely on a gun far more than her predecessors, and while she presumably has excellent combat skills, she isn't afforded many opportunities to use them.

The dynamic between the two new characters is somewhat familiar. Chris displays a Gambitlike interest in Sam, and periodically makes that interest known. Sam, for her part, seems mildly disconcerted by his attempts to get closer to her, and refuses to let him call her anything but Mrs Peel. The dynamic between him and Sam is spikier than Steed and Emma's, or even Purdey and Gambit's, but less conflicted than Steed and Cathy's, and while there may be elements of all three in the mix, it doesn't feel as though it's a complete copy of anything that's gone before.

Steed's final lines suggest that Chris and Sam's new partnership would take them to both sides of the Atlantic, so presumably some American episodes of the show would have been in the offing, perhaps to allow it to compete with the likes of American series such as Remington Steele and Moonlighting, which would have been its contemporaries. Other than the wholesale replication of Emma Peel, there's nothing to suggest that the show couldn't have been at least moderately successful, even though it likely would never have reached the heights that the original series did at its peak. Clearly it never got off the ground, possibly because of said contemporaries. By the 1980s, The Avengers had been around long enough that its DNA and influence were being incorporated into the next wave of detective/spy series, with bizarre plots and the male/female partnership becoming more and more omnipresent. Avengers alumni even had some involvement in those series, with Brian Clemens writing episodes for Remington Steele, and Ray Austin directing several episodes of Hart to Hart. As such, the very qualities that made The Avengers unique when it debuted had become the status quo, leaving the show to struggle to break new ground while still remaining recognisable. Perhaps this new television landscape was behind the show's failure to be commissioned. If that was the case, then the show was a victim of its own past success, and perhaps it was for the best that, in the end, The Avengers continued not with a new series, but subtly, through its legacy.

Written by J. Ferguson
Anew

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