Man v. Machine: Badguy Cybernauts


Peel and Steed encounter a Cybernaut

Today, we’ll be looking at the trenchcoat- and trilby-wearing metal automatons known as the Cybernauts! The bots made their first appearance in the October 1965 episode of The Avengers that was later the first one to be broadcast in the United States (in March 1966). The episode has proved to be popular on both sides of the pond, and many media critics cite it as an episode important to the thematic growth of the series.

James Chapman in Saints and Avengers: British adventure series of the 1960s (2002) suggests that the episode presents an about-face to earlier views of technology seen on the program, and stemmed from growing fears of a society ruled by technology:

While resistance to progress is dangerous, so too is progress itself if it remains unchecked. Whereas earlier Avengers episodes had advocated investment in science and technology as the key to securing the nation’s future, the series now suggested that in the wrong hands they could be used for diabolical ends. Again, The Avengers can be seen as responding to contemporary concerns, particularly the ideas expressed by academics such as Theodore Roszak that technocracy (the organisation of society based on principles laid down by technical experts) could all too easily lead to a form of totalitarianism. The danger of technocracy taken to the extreme became a prominent theme of the ‘classic’ period of The Avengers.

Jeffrey S. Miller, writing in his Something completely different: British television and American culture (2000) builds on David Buxton’s view that The Cybernauts, and similarly themed episodes, reflected a British class struggle that was mostly lost on Americans:

Of those narrative conventions coming out of the Bond movies and other secret agent shows, none was more important, as “The Cybernauts” would indicate, than the menace of technology. David Buxton argues that The Avengers represents a discourse on the place of technology in accommodating modernity to the traditional British class structure. A danger when used by a nouveau riche class (including scientist / entrepreneurs such as Armstrong) without regard to a traditional elite, technology is equally problematic when used by aristocrats to defend the old order against the rising welfare state. The middle ground, he argues, is technology in the service of consumption and fashion, a middle ground American audiences already found themselves occupying, thanks to Bond, UNCLE, Drake, and other secret agents….The narrative deployment of technology as the tool of evil, familiar to American audiences not only through previous secret agent movies and television programs, but through their own fears of nuclear holocaust, became the central motif of Avengers plots, superseding the Cold War even in many episodes in which Cold War concerns were directly referenced.

Norman Weiner
The use of the portmanteau term “cybernaut” appears to have originated with this episode, though later it was used by scientists in descriptions of potential robot-manned space flights, and more recently has come to mean anyone who explores digital space — the internet, virtual realities, MMORPGs, etc. The word draws its meaning from Norbert Wiener’s use of “cybernetics,” or technological mechanisms, in his 1950 book The Human Use of Human Beings : Cybernetics and Society. Wiener would later go on to be a major influence on those who pioneered the field of robotics, but, fittingly, worried about the effect that robots might have on society — not because they’d go evil and run amok, but because they’d put people out of jobs. As he wrote in The Human Use of Human Beings, “The automatic machine, whatever we think of any feelings it may have or may not have, is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor.” Wiener set forth ethical guidelines and ideas in his work that he hoped would guide inventors and developers of the future.

But what do mad scientists care of ethics? In their world, cybernauts are the economic equvalent of hitmen-for hire, as John Steed and Emma Peel soon discover. While investigating the murders of businessmen set to bid on a new kind of integrated circuit, the pair find themselves searching for someone who can walk through walls, crack down doors, and break necks with a single blow. Eventually, the trail leads to crazed wheelchair-bound inventor Dr. Armstrong, who is using the faceless steel strongbots to eliminate his competition (Wiener was right — early in the episode, Armstrong brags to Steed that he has no need for employees besides the cybernauts). To give you a taste, here’s a tension-filled clip from the finale of the episode (note the casual glance Emma gives as the cybernauts beat up on their creator):

Steed and Peel faced off against the Cybernauts again in a later episode, in which the mad scientist role was played by Hammer horror films veteran Peter Cushing. In the sequel, Cushing plays the brother of Dr. Armstrong, and uses a new wave of cybernauts to take revenge on Peel and Steed for his brother’s death:

But that wasn’t the end of the Cybernauts. They returned again, in an episode of The New Avengers, where Steed, Purdey and Gambit fight the robots sent on behalf of a former double agent, Kane, who blames them for his disfigurement. Kane teams up with the man who originally developed the cybernauts for Armstrong, and in the conclusion winds up becoming half cybernaut himself — a cyborgernaut, if you will:

The last of the cybernauts? Not hardly, though this marked their last time on television. John Peel and Dave Rogers revived the killer robots for his The Avengers: Too Many Targets, which found Steed teaming up with all of his former partners to take down a new cybernaut threat. In the book that, in his Spy Television, fellow COBRAS agent Wes Britton calls, “One of the most interesting literary incarnations of any secret agent venture,” The Avengers, all of them, are in Africa investigating the murder of two agents when judo punches start to resound with a familiar clang. Here’s a taste:

Steed stared down at the broken robot. “It’s familiar, wouldn’t you say?”

“Very,” Emma admitted, chilled. “It looks like a Cybernaut. But it can’t be.”

On his knee, Steed poked at the exposed circuits with the ferrule of his umbrella. “A new generation of Cybernauts,” he agreed. “Ones that look like people we know–and act like them. These are sophisticated, Mrs. Peel. Very sophisticated.”

Emma thought back to their previous two encounters with the Cybernauts. They had been cold, emotionless robots, built by the crippled Dr. Armstrong. Powerful, silent, and programmable, they had twice been turned against her and Steed. The first time had been by Amrstrong, and the second time by the late inventor’s brother, Paul Beresford. But Armstrong had died, killed accidentally by one of his own creations.

“How can they be?” she objected. “Armstrong was killed.” She didn’t like where Steed’s thoughts seemed to be heading.

“So were the Cybernauts,” Steed said softly. “But machines can’t die.”

The question I’ll leave you with is this: are the cybernauts badguys? Or are they just a reflection of the evil desires of their creators? Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the opposite — a cybernaut created by the forces of good.

This post first appeared on the Mister 8 website, 3rd June 2009,

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Man v. Machine: Badguy Cybernauts

Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972)

Release Year: 1972
Director: Robert Fuest
Starring: Vincent Price, Robert Quarry, Valli Kemp, Peter Cushing, Berryl Reid, Terry-Thomas, Milton Reid, Caroline Munro
Music: John Gale

I haven’t seen The Abominable Dr. Phibes since I was a kid, so I cannot remember too much about it. Thankfully this sequel leads in with a detailed recap of the first film, in which it appears that he placed himself into hibernation with his dead wife – well she’s sort of dead, in suspended animation. Phibes (Vincent Price) is trying to bring her back to life. After many years of hibernation, Phibes rises once more to continue his quest – which is to restore life to his wife Victoria (is that Caroline Munro – she doesn’t receive a credit?). And let me say that again – Phibes quest is to restore life to his beloved wife, Victoria. If you think I am being repetitive, your darn right. But you should see this film. Man, that is all that Phibes says. In many different ways – over and over. It got to a point where I just wanted him to shut up and kill some people.

In the years since Phibes placed himself in hibernation, his house has been knocked down and the map to a secret spot in Egypt – that can restore Victoria’s life – has been stolen. Well it was found by an antique dealer who sold it to an archaeologist named Beiderbeck (Count Yorga, er, I mean Robert Quarry). Phibes naturally wants this map back. With a little help from his mute assistant, the beautiful Vulnavia (Valli Kemp), Phibes retrieves the map and then boards a steamer for Egypt.

But Biederbeck didn’t die, when Phibes retrieved the map, his manservant (Milton Reid) did. So Biederbeck wants the map back. He too has a reason for wanting it. He has been living on a young serum for the past one hundred years, and his supplies have run out. He needs the location of the sacred river of life in Egypt, just as much as Phibes does, and will go to almost any length to get it. He too, boards the steamer heading off for Egypt.

Dr. Phibes Rises Again is a great example of style over substance and this film has camp style to burn. But it is sluggishly paced and we only get about two horror (very mild horror) moments. However the film looks great and has some wonderful ‘out there’ touches. I was particularly fond of Victoria’s glass coffin which has the grilles from two Rolls Royces mounted at each end.

In some ways, this films biggest crime though, is that it lacks a resolution. This is most likely because they intended to make a third Phibes movie, so this didn’t eventuate. I would have liked to have seen Victoria revived and her reaction at what her husband had become. I know it’s kind of predictable, but it would give me a sense of closure with these characters – instead we are left hanging.

I hate to say this – it seems unsporting – but I was disappointed in Dr. Phibes Rises Again.

Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972)

Peter Cushing: Past Forgetting

Peter Cushing: ‘Past Forgetting’
Memoirs of the Hammer Years

If you have been following this series of posts, you will have read that my favourite Sherlock Holmes film is the 1959 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which starred Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes, but the film is not without its flaws or filming complications. This following excerpt is from one of Peter Cushing’s autobiographies, Past Forgetting, which looks primarily at The Hammer Years.

Peter Cushing: ‘Past Forgetting’ – Memoirs of the Hammer Years. 1988 Published by George Weidenfeld and Nicolson (Pages 78-79)

My first spell of duty as Sherlock Holmes had actually occurred before the television series, when the Hammer production of The Hound of the Baskervilles was made. Tony Hinds, the producer, said how professional I was to have lost weight especially to portray that gaunt detective. I’m afraid I hadn’t been as conscientious as all that – ‘it was Spain what done it!’ – I’d be out there making John Paul Jones, and a bout of dysentery had fined me down. Producers of The Hound of the Baskervilles always experience tremendous difficulties over making the hound seem realistic and truly frightening. This is what they have to aim for:

…I sprang to my feet, my inert hand grasping my pistol, my mind paralyzed by the dreadful shape which had sprung out upon us from the shadows of the fog. A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smouldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the dilerious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog.

Thus spake Dr. Watson, at the end of Chapter Fourteen in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s gripping yarn. Such a description is enough to turn those in the special effects department grey overnight, and I don’t think that the infamous hound has ever been entirely successful in any presentation of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Packs of unlikely canine contenders were auditioned by Terry Fisher, most of them just wanting to roll over and have their tummies tickled. Even Crufts failed us.

Eventually one was chosen and given a good coating of glycerine. The production team, endeavouring to create the illusion of the dog’s massive proportions, hit upon the idea of employing three young boys corresponding in relative size to André Morrell (Dr Watson) Christopher Lee (Sir Henry) and myself, dressing them in replicas of our clothes. A miniature set was errected depicting a stretch of Dartmoor, clouds of dry-ice pumped in, representing fog. The decision was to take a long-shot of this set up, and when all was ready for the cameras to turn, a prop-man flung a meaty morsel into the set, whereupon ‘Fido’, who’d been starved up until the last moment, pounced upon it ravenously.

On the following day the rushes were viewed and disappointment deflated all concerned. We saw three small boys dressed up as if playing a game of charades, foggy toy scenery with a wet, hungry dog in the middle, contently wolfing a bone. The sequence was scrapped.

For a fascinating overview of Peter Cushing and Sherlock Holmes, check out the article by Charles Prepolec on the Baker Street Dozen website.

Peter Cushing: Past Forgetting

Masks of Death (1984)

Director: Roy Ward Baker
Starring: Peter Cushing, John Mills, Anton Diffring, Gordon Jackson, Ray Milland, Anne Baxter, Russell Hunter
Music: Malcolm Williamson

The Masks Of Death is a autumnal take on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The characters are much older than we are used to. Peter Cushing in particular, as Holmes looks gaunt and frail – he was 69 years old at the time. John Mills, who plays Watson was 76 years old. Despite their ages, and subsequently the lack of vigorous action sequences, this film is still very enjoyable. I guess this stems from watching a group of seasoned professionals do their thing the only way they know how. Sherlock Holmes was clearly a character that Cushing enjoyed playing, having starred in Hammer’s The Hound Of The Baskervilles in 1959, and then later taking on the role in the BBC television series in 1969.

The film has a weird little cowcatcher at the front, set in 1926 where Homes, or more precisely Watson is recounting the tale of one of Sherlock Holmes’ untold adventures to a reporter. She begins writing down her notes, and we flashback to just before The Great War, in 1913.

Even in 1913, Sherlock Holmes has long since retired and spends his time tending his bees in Sussex, but on one of his occasional visits to London he returns to 221B Baker Street – It appears that Mrs. Hudson keeps Holmes lodgings in ship shape condition for his return visits to the big smoke. Joining Holmes for the afternoon is his old friend Dr, John Watson. As they chat and reminisce, they are interrupted by Alec MacDonald of Scotland Yard (Gordon Jackson). MacDonald has a baffling case which he cannot fathom. In the past month three men have died, all with their faces frozen with a look of horror. Intrigued, Holmes agrees to help MacDonald out.

Two of the men died in Whitechapel, so after a visit to the morgue, Holmes begins his investigation there. The last man who died was a professional beggar, and he died on a grating in one of the many laneways in Whitechapel. Holmes finds the grating, but a new derelict has taken up residence upon it. The derelict is one Alfred Coombs, played by Russell Hunter, who spy fans will remember as the stinky character, ‘Lonely’ in the TV series Callan. Coombs rants and raves like a mad man, and Holmes gets no useful information from him – or does he?

Back at Baker Street, as Holmes and Watson try to decipher the rambling of the mad man Coombs, they are payed a visit by the Home Secretary (Ray Milland) and Graf Udo von Felseck (Anton Differing). It seems that Graf Udo von Felseck is on a secret mission of peace in England. He has been escorting the young Prince of Germany, to lead him in talks with the British Government. But before these talks could commence, the young Prince has been kidnapped from von Felseck’s country estate. If it is discovered that the Prince has been kidnapped, then war between the two countries is imminent.

Naturally Holmes accepts the case, and along with Watson they head to Purbridge, and von Felseck’s estate and attempt to pick up the trail of the missing Prince. Among the house guests at the estate is Irene Adler (Anne Baxter). In his career, Holmes has only been bested four times. Irene Adler was the only woman to do it, and naturally Holmes is very suspicious of her presence at von Felseck’s.

While I loathe to can this film, because I enjoyed it very much, but there are some incredibly large plot holes, and simply overly contrived situations. At one stage Holmes is lured to a chalk mine, where the villains of the piece attempt to assassinate him. Believe me, if they wanted him out of the way, they could have quite simply shot him earlier in the film. The subterfuge is completely unnecessary – except to confound the audience. This is a film for Holmes completists, and/or those who enjoy watching the films of Peter Cushing. Others could find it a bit slow paced, lacking in action, and the story too contrived.

The illustration of Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes at the top is from Pat Art.

Masks of Death (1984)