Saturday, October 29, 2011

All the Bodies We’ve Had In the Past

The 1960s and 1970s in British television were a golden age for science fiction shows like Doctor Who, spy shows like Danger Man, and shows like The Prisoner that combined elements of both. The latter description covers The Avengers as well; but The Avengers differs from the other shows just mentioned in a crucial particular:  while dvds of Danger ManThe Prisoner, and Doctor Who remain in print, dvds of The Avengers do not — in North America, at least — and so have become absurdly expensive rarities. (This is especially puzzling because in North America The Avengers has traditionally been the best known and most popular of the lot.)  That’s a shame, since this delightful show deserves to enjoy the same kind of resurgence as its cousins.

Most of us probably associate The Avengers with the iconic duo of Patrick Macnee as John Steed and Diana Rigg as Emma Peel.  It’s easy to forget that Steed was not originally the male lead, and that Peel was Steed’s partner for just two seasons out of six (or out of eight, if we count The New Avengers).  Nevertheless, the Emma Peel years are justly regarded as representing the show at its height – not just because Peel is the audience’s favourite among Steed’s partners (though partly for that reason of course), but also because it was in the Emma Peel years that the show most fully achieved its distinctive tone and feel.  (It’s also true that the pre-Peel episodes did not play widely outside Britain.)  The surrealism, self-referentiality, metatextual parody, and ironic distancing that characterised The Avengers at its height would hardly have been foreseen by viewers of the earliest episodes.

(Just to be clear, this show has no connection to the later Marvel comic book and now movie franchise The Avengers, apart from the fact that both titles seem ill-chosen; in each case the protagonists’ chief concern seems to be prevention and defense rather than retribution.)

The Avengers was the brainchild of producer Sydney Newman, who would go on two years later to develop Doctor Who.  (So yes, two of Britain’s most iconic shows were dreamt up by a Canadian!)  But just as Doctor Who drifted a bit from Newman’s original vision (for example, his strict no-space-monsters policy was, shall we say, not always rigorously adhered to), so did The Avengers, beginning as a realistic crime thriller and then gradually transmogrifying into something quite different.

It’s sometimes said that The Avengers started off as a drama and then became a comedy.  I don’t think “comedy” is quite the right term for what the show became; but it’s easily mistaken for a comedy, because a) it is quite funny, and b) it comments on and subverts genre conventions.  Neither of these features would be sufficient on its own to get the show labeled a comedy, but when the two are combined, the category of “spoof” naturally suggests itself.  But while the show does frequently spoof the spy and sf genres, I still maintain that a spoof is not what The Avengers primarily is, because the goal is not so much laughs as a total spectacle, and the message is not “how funny these people are!” but “how utterly cool they are!”

Notice how in this opening credits sequence it’s obvious that the characters (not just the actors) are quite consciously constructing and performing their identities; and the freedom and exuberance with which they carry off their acts of style and self-definition is far more a focus of the show than the actual details of plot:

The Avengers parodies not just other shows but itself; and here I don’t mean “self-parody” in the usual sense where a show’s or artist’s later work parodies their earlier work. On the contrary, what’s being parodied is often the very conditions of the show itself. Just two examples: thanks to broadcast standards, the characters couldn’t be falling into bed every few minutes à la James Bond; but rather than switching to the opposite extreme of, say, Danger Man, where it’s clear that no sex is ever going to happen, the teasing ambiguity of the flirtation and innuendo between the two leads in The Avengers – is their relation romantic/sexual or not? – simply thematises the very prohibition on addressing that question that was imposed on the show. Another example: the weird fighting style the characters use is not just an adaptation to, but (methinks) a kind of mockery of, the broadcast-standards prohibition on people actually getting punched.

The following clip is a nice introduction to the style and character dynamics of the show, even though, as pure spoof with no vestige of realism, it’s not representative of the show. That’s because it’s not actually from the regular show; rather, it’s a standalone promo for the show’s first season in colour. (The “punchline” seems more Bondy than Steedy, I have to say.)

Even in this pure comedy skit, what’s being parodied and commented on is not just the conventions of the spy genre or of this show in particular, but specifically the show’s very tendency to parody and comment on those conventions.  Since what the skit is parodying is the show’s own tendency toward self-parody, the skit is in effect a continuation and intensification of, rather than an external comment on, its object.  

(If I were a German philosopher I would probably say something like:  
Here the subject and object of the Idea are one ... for whereas in Nature the intelligent unity has its objectivity perfect but externalized, this self-externalization has been nullified and the unity in that way been made one and the same with itself.
But don’t worry, I’ll resist.)

My aim in creating this blog (a separate project from my regular blog) is to blog my way through all the (surviving) Avengers episodes, from 1961 to 1969, as well as the revived version of the show in 1976-1977.  (I suppose I’ll have to say something about the wretched 1998 film as well, though that post will make a sad ending to the project.) There are more episodes I haven’t seen than ones I have, so this will be in large part new territory for me.  In addition to being a science fiction geek, I’m both a professional philosopher and an individualist anarchist, and my commentaries will no doubt be affected by all three perspectives.

I make no promises as to the frequency of updates.

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