Troubled times for The Avengers as it geared up for its sixth (and, as it turned out, final) season. Diana Rigg had swapped her role as the iconic Emma Peel (although she appears in debut episode ‘The Forget-Me-Knot’ to hand-over to the new girl) for a bit of light Bond-age in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and behind-the-scenes unrest was about to change the shape – and fate – of the show. Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell, who’d orchestrated the series’ gradual transformation from a mundane espionage thriller into an extraordinary, fantastical four-colour comic strip TV classic, were ousted and replaced by John Bryce who was tasked with making the show more realistic and less light-hearted. Bryce’s then-girlfriend – the inexperienced Linda Thorson – was cast as Steed’s new assistant Tara King but after three disastrously-previewed episodes Bryce was out and Clemens and Fennel were back. Business as usual.
Well, more or less. Season six can’t help but feel a bit different if only because of the changed dynamic between Macnee’s mature Steed and Thorson’s ingénue Tara King. Touchy modern sensibilities make the flirty relationship between Steed – now clearly well into middle-age – and the barely-out-of-her-teens Tara seem a little creepy but it’s still largely innocent stuff and much of their banter barely qualifies as innuendo. Despite her youth and inexperience, Thorson holds her own well against the seasoned Macnee; her performances are more than adequate and if her fighting skills aren’t quite as slick as her predecessor Rigg and Honor Blackman, she hurls herself into the judo-based combat sequences with huge enthusiasm.
After a shaky handful of rather flat episodes – the remains of the more grounded approach foisted on the series before common sense prevailed – season six hurls itself straight back into madcap fantasy mode. Steed and Tara now have a boss; he’s the remarkable Mother (Newell), seated in his wheelchair and instructing and directing the pair from a variety of increasingly-surreal locations, often with his own mute assistant Rhonda (Parker) at his side. Season six soon finds its fantasy feet again and, even though it was ultimately only the withdrawl of US funding which scuppered the prospect of further series, it’s as if the show knew it was on its way out and was determined to take its final bow with all guns blazing. Amidst a slew of fairly typical arch murder/espionage yarns there are some classic Avengers tales here as the show takes sixties surrealism to a new level with stories involving killer clowns (‘Look – (Stop me If You’ve Heard This One) - But There Were These Two Fellers’), a spray which makes wood disappears (‘The Rotters’), the resurrection of Victorian killer The Gaslight Ghoul in 1960s London (‘Fog’) and a sinister school for astronauts (‘Invasion of the Earthmen’). Best of all is the tremendous ‘deserted town’ episode ‘The Morning After’, later ‘re-imagined’ as ‘Sleeper’ in the 1970s New Avengers series.
Steed and Tara King take their final bow in ‘Bizarre’ – blasted into space in a rocket - “They’ll be back, you can depend on it...they’re unchaperoned”, deadpans Mother - but contentedly quaffing champagne. Season six clearly isn’t the best of The Avengers; the chemistry between Macnee and Rigg was so palpable that Thorson can’t hope to replicate it and some of the stories do feel as if they’re going through the motions. But when it’s firing on all cylinders, it’s close to the top of its game and certainly, on this fabulously-presented eight-disc set with its vibrant, pin-sharp hi-def image and comprehensive supporting material (although a new documentary would be nice) it’s never looked better. Slick, stylish, silly and very often completely outrageous, The Avengers remains a benchmark title in British TV history. Its legion of fans will love this glorious boxset.
Special Features: Six commentaries / Filmed introductions / Linda Thorson introduction / Promotional trailers / Test footage / Series 1 episode reconstructions / Scripts / Textless credits / German credits.
THE AVENGERS – THE COMPLETE SERIES 6 / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: VARIOUS / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: PATRICK MACNEE, LINDA THORSON, PATRICK NEWELL, RHONDA PARKER, DIANA RIGG / RELEAS EDATE: OUT NOW