⊕ Content note for discussion of ableism and tropes of disabled/disfigured-as-villain
One unfortunate facet of both The Avengers and The New Avengers is their often problematic portrayal of disability. The writers and producers of these shows bought into the age-old trope of the disabled/disfigured villain, portraying these kinds of characters with greater or lesser emphasis on how the disability or disfigurement itself is somehow either the root cause of the villainy, or else an outward expression or reflection thereof. (You can read some of my other thoughts on this sort of thing here and here.)
The three episodes that comprise what I am calling the “Cybernauts cycle” are “The Cybernauts” (Season 4) and “Return of the Cybernauts” (Season 5), both by Philip Levene; and “Last of the Cybernauts” (The New Avengers), by Brian Clemens. Each of these episodes rings various changes on both the trope of disabled/disfigured villain and also the perceived conflicts between technology and humanity. However, it is not only tech writ large that is at issue, but also the more specific question of the relationship between humanity and assistive technology. The ways in which the disability/humanity/tech nexus is painted creates arcs within each individual episode, and also an arc that works its way across the cycle as a whole.
Recently on social media, I saw a link to a story about comic book author Farida Bedwei, the creator of Karmzah, a superhero with cerebral palsy who derives her powers from her crutches. Ms Bedwei, who herself has cerebral palsy, created Karmzah because she wants to see heroes who are like herself, and to share them with other disabled people. She also wants to use Karmzah as a way to end the stigma over the need for assistive devices such as crutches, which are so vital for disabled people, but the use of which all too often comes with additional costs and frustrations because the world has not been constructed to be accessible to the disabled.
This terrific story about Bedwei’s comic and her crutch-wielding superhero set me thinking about the third act of the Season 6 episode “Noon Doomsday,” in which Tara’s ableist attitude ends up endangering both herself and a crutch-wielding Steed, and how Steed’s adaptability, foresight, and approach towards his temporary disability allow him to defeat the villain and rescue Tara. Further, the ableism of this episode exists in intersection with sexism and toxic masculinity, and the presence of all three of these issues is a direct result of the way Tara’s character and her relationship with Steed was handled by the Season 6 producers in general and by “Noon Doomsday” screenwriter Terry Nation in particular.
The first in an occasional series on representations of disability in The Avengers
⊗ Content note for discussion of ableism and disabled-as-villain tropes
Odd and possibly criminal things might happening in connection with an intended corneal transplant involving a live donor and an exclusive eye clinic in the Swiss Alps, so Steed asks Mrs Gale to hop over to the Continent to check things out. Marten Halvarssen, a wealthy, blind recluse who is the owner of the clinic (although he himself lives in London), seems to be one of the possible players in the apparent nefariousness, along with Dr Eve Hawn, who is Halvarssen’s fiancee, and Neil Anstice, who at first appears to be one of the clinic’s surgeons but in fact is a sort of mercenary criminal hired to do the legwork of the scheme.
As the title of the episode and the above brief synopsis indicate, disability—in particular, blindness—plays a very important role in both characterization and plot. Although the blind man is worked up as a suspect and potential villain, his actual role in the criminal doings that drive the plot of the episode is rather less black-and-white, making him something of an outlier in Avengers and New Avengers episodes that feature disabled characters, who nearly universally are unequivocally bad guys. Even so, Halvarssen is no Boy Scout: the elaborate diamond-smuggling plot that leads to the murders of Hilda Brauer and Dr Spender was set in motion by him, although the deaths were not part of his plan and he is furious that Anstice killed those people. In the end, however, Halvarssen shows himself to be on the side of the good guys, at least for the moment, actively helping Steed and Mrs Gale take down the others.