As I have noted elsewhere, there are many points of contact between The Avengers and The Champions, two British television series from the 1960s, and between The Champions and The New Avengers, which aired in the mid 1970s. In those previous blogs, I wrote about how elements of Avengers episodes are echoed in some of those from Champions, and then later how a New Avengers story echoed a Champions one.
Plots and villains and action aren’t the only places where these three series intersect, however. One important point of contact is in the character of the female secret agent. In Champions, this is Sharron Macready (Alexandra Bastedo), a medical doctor, biochemist, and agent of a private security service called Nemesis. Across the entirety of Avengers (including TNA), there were five female partners who worked with John Steed, but the one I’d like to concentrate on here is Emma Peel (Diana Rigg), since in many ways she has the most in common with Sharron.
This was originally posted on my tumblr in response to celluloidbroomcloset.tumblr.com’sexcellent work on the use of color in this episode.I haven’t had much time or energy for non-fictional Avenging lately, so I figured I’d resurrect some of my old stuff for a new audience here on WordPress.
The clothing and ties worn by Steed and Beresford (Peter Cushing!), and the ties worn by a few other characters, seem to work as sartorial commentary on the plot in the Season 5 episode, “Return of the Cybernauts”.
When Beresford is interacting with Emma, he always wears the same suit with the same black late-19th-century-style black tie, but Steed’s ties and suits change throughout the episode, and with one exception (grey suit, gold tie), Steed doesn’t wear the same suit twice with Emma.
Steed’s ties change color throughout, but the last one he wears is black. The colors of Steed’s suits also change throughout the episode, ending with the black suit and light-colored shirt at the end.
The use of black and white for the men’s clothing in these situations has symbolic significance with respect to their relationship to one another and the trajectory of the plot, and also harkens back to the original “Cybernauts” episode, which was shot in black and white.
In an earlier blog, I discussed the ways in which Steed’s masculinity is sometimes treated dismissively by critics and writers, despite massive evidence to the contrary, in part because of the way the gender binary is constructed in Western society. There’s a corollary to this, deeply entwined with issues of gender and gender performance, and that is the minimization or denial of Steed’s physicality. I’m not sure exactly how or when this started, but at least since the mid-1980s there seems to have been a tendency to relegate Steed to the sidelines when discussing the physical, embodied aspects of the Avengers, with particular reference to combat with the villains.
(I’m hoping to do a more thorough workup of the history of this in the future, but for now I’ll go with what I’ve got. Also, there are other ways Steed expresses his physicality besides combat, but I’m sticking with that one for now, too.)
This was something I originally posted on my tumblr blog, but it seems appropriate to repost it here, with a few modifications.
In “The Superlative Seven,” Steed and six others are lured onto a plane by a criminal mastermind (Donald Sutherland!) who is trying to sell his method of martial arts training to a foreign buyer. The captives on the plane include a fencing master, a bullfighter, a sharpshooter, a big game hunter, a military man who has created his own system of unarmed combat (Brian Blessed!), and a strongman. And then there’s Steed. The seven of them are being taken to a remote island in order to put to the test the fighting abilities of the mastermind’s protegé, who is hidden among the seven.
While the seven are on the plane, the strongman bends a poker, which he then tosses to Steed. Steed proceeds to unbend the poker, much to the chagrin of the strongman, who had been billing himself as “the strongest man in the world.” We later see Steed engage in a bit of trick shooting with a revolver.
“But you would have gone to Ali’s defence? Physically?” “Under different circumstances, certainly.” He did not seem angry at my disobedience, just puzzled. Finally he said, “But women do not fight.” “This one does,” I answered. He held my gaze, then looked sideways at Holmes. “This one does,” my mentor confirmed. — Mahmoud Hazr, Mary Russell, and Sherlock Holmes in O Jerusalem by Laurie R King
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One of the groundbreaking aspects of The Avengers from the beginning of the Cathy Gale era was that Steed’s female partners were treated as his equals, and hints were often dropped that the women might be even better than he was at some things, or smarter in some ways. This was done in absolute seriousness: Cathy Gale and Emma Peel were written neither in a humorous attempt to undermine Steed’s masculinity, nor in order to lampoon the women as ball-breaking viragos. These women are not caricatures: they are strong, skilled, capable, and intelligent, and expect to be treated accordingly. Steed certainly does that: he accepts Cathy and Emma just as they are. He is not threatened by their talents, but rather celebrates them, and Steed’s delight in his partners and what they can do is one of the finest aspects of those relationships.