A while back, Eugene and I tried to work out what’s scifi (and what’s not). This came about when Eugene included The Avengers on a list of top scifi shows which surprised me, because while it’s my top show, I wouldn’t have considered it scifi. On the podcast we spent about an hour discussing what scifi is, without reaching a conclusion, but along the way we discussed all sorts of different types of scifi, and the blurry boundary into fantasy.
Meanwhile, I have finished a marathon watch of every surviving episode of The Avengers so, for the benefit of science (fiction), I have noted down all the ones that might fit into some kind of scifi sub-genre… As anyone familiar with the show will realise, there’s no scope for the space opera, or time travel (however close it comes). But oddly, the first ‘sub-genre’ to creep into the show is barely even sci-fi at all…
Since the Avengers evolved as a vehicle for Ian Hendry after the rather worthy Police Surgeon was cancelled, it starts out rather more gritty than the whimsical fantasy it is reputed for. Early episodes focused on an amateur helping out Steed, a civil servant (spy) in thwarting crime – often organised crime to start with, but soon a bit of international espionage too. It wasn’t until the later episodes that science fiction began to creep in. But the earliest episode that deviates from strict ‘reality’ is in series 2, and it’s not so much science fiction as fantasy. Warlock is about witchcraft, with Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman) playing a kind of Scully role – eager to show the serious damage irrational beliefs can cause – yet the way the episode is filmed strongly suggests the magic is real.
The only other real foray into the supernatural is in series 4: in Too Many Christmas Trees Steed has weird dreams that are revealed to be produced by a nefarious group of telepaths. There’s no real attempt to explain the mechanism for telepathy, it’s just taken for granted. Perhaps, at the time, it was not as commonly understood just how extraordinary this would be, though that’s hard to credit.
This is another fairly unlikely category, and yet the threat from space is theme of the only other Cathy Gale era episode to really count as sci-fi. Okay, it’s not actually an alien invasion, it’s the titular White Dwarf on a collision course with our solar system, also from series 2. But there is actually a genuine, bona-fide alien invasion plot in series 4: The Man Eater of Surrey Green features sentient vegetation from space which is capable of mind control…
There are a couple more stories that initially appear to be alien invasions, but are, in fact, faux sci-fi.
It’s in series 5 that The Avengers starts getting into sci-fi in a big way – but initially this is through borrowing sci-fi tropes on behalf of the villains, as hoaxes. For example, in the opener From Venus With Love a Venusian invasion is staged (using lasers… in a scientifically illiterate manner). Time travel is the hoax in Escape in Time, and invisibility in The See-Through Man, also both from series 5. We’re back to apparent alien invasion for Invasion of the Earthmen (series 6) though the diabolical scheme turns out to be an Earth man planning invasions of alien planets.
Another form of sci-fi involves gadgets or technology that is at least just a little bit ahead of what is possible at the time. Since it starts out being all about espionage, right from early on there are plots about some new form of rocket fuel or biological weaponry that is supposed to be at the cutting edge. If we aren’t told much about it or how it works, or if it could just as easily be replaced by very advanced but contemporary tech, I’m not going to count it. But in series 4 these scientific extrapolations started to become more central to the plot.
In Castle De’ath (series 4) sound-waves are used to disrupt fishing. Rather more ambitious is the weather manipulation machine in A Surfeit of H2O (series 4) which is too fast to be credible – but the concept is a serious and weather modification warfare would be banned by the UN in 1978.
Dial a Deadly Number from series 4 is all about pagers. Deadly pagers that pierce the heart, but still, basically, pagers. Advanced for 1965. Old hat now. There are boots that can climb walls and walk across ceilings in The Winged Avenger. It’s very poorly realised. But, y’know, it is possible.
In You’ll Catch Your Death (series 6) the common cold is engineered into a lethal form for use as a biological agent. Light beams are used to listen to conversations at a distance in All Done With Mirrors (series 6) which accurately predicts developments in eavesdropping tech – although it blots its copybook by transmitting audio the same way.
I suppose The Rotters (series 6) is also a form of engineering fiction, positing that the destruction of wood could be accelerated by air born agents, but the execution is ham-fisted even by the low standards of the show in its colour era.
Computers and AI feature fairly frequently. Although in The Cybernauts (series 4) the titular androids use a homing system, AI is discussed.
In The House That Jack Built (series 4) automation is taken to a lethal extreme (the designer is dead, the house itself is targeting Emma). In Never, Never Say Die (series 5) the androids are indistinguishable from humans (except they don’t grow stubble). In Whoever Shot Poor George Oblique Stroke XR40? (series 6) George is not a particularly sophisticated computer by modern standards, but he is anthropomorphised. In Killer (series 6) the computer (REMAK) traps and kill agents. It’s possible this section on AI is where Thingumajig should get a mention, with its little mobile semi-autonomous electricity consuming cubes (they’re cut price Daleks in this Terry Nation episode) though these are described to be like a Roomba (not by name, but with eerie accuracy) so aren’t really that intelligent.
In The Hidden Tiger (series 5) augmented cats become killers. In Who’s Who??? (series 5) minds can be swapped. In The Return of the Cybernauts (series 5) a human can be effectively remote controlled.In Mission… Highly Improbable (series 5) it’s not so much augmentation as miniaturisation – people can be shrunk. More mind transfer stuff in Split! (series 6). And faces can be remoulded in They Keep Killing Steed (series 6).
Hallucination, Amnesia and Hypnosis
In Something Nasty In The Nursery (series 5) a hallucinogen is used to regress victims to childhood. In The Forget-Me-Knot (series 6) amnesia is induced by a drug injected by firing a dart. In Super Secret Cypher Snatch (series 6) a form of hypnosis is induced through an aerosol and false memories implanted through audio recordings. A drug can make you say the always tell falsehoods in False Witness (series 6).
Is it any good?
So those 33 episodes, I reckon, represent the episodes of The Avengers where it strays into sci-fi. Maybe we’ll manage to podcast about some of those – because we’d never be able to do all 137 episodes of the show (only a fool would attempt to even blog that many).
But is it good sci-fi?
With a few exceptions, these are among the least impressive episodes of the show. The exceptions mostly fall within the ‘engineering fiction’ category – taking the idea of scientific developments that are either of national significance, or which can be readily turned to profitable (criminal) use – and extrapolating. The Cybernauts, A Surfeit of H2O, Dial a Deadly Number. Otherwise, sci-fi in The Avengers represents overindulgence.
The Avengers is not a science fiction show. When used imaginatively, advanced technology can add an entertainingly extravagant dimension; but borrowing sci-fi tropes recklessly overbalances the show’s delicate relationship with reality and extinguishes its dramatic impetus.
It thrives on the fringes of sci-fi. A surfeit is deadly.