Robert Day, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 17: The Return of the Cybernauts)” (1967)
One of the more openly science fiction episodes in this season of the TV show, this mixes comedy, horror, action and even a love rival who not only makes Steed (Patrick Macnee) extremely jealous but also turns out to be his foe. Guest star Peter Cushing plays Paul Beresford who inveigles his way into Peel’s affections in order to draw her and Steed into a situation where he can destroy them as revenge for their role in the death of his robotics scientist brother Clement Armstrong in an earlier Avengers episode. Along the way he and Armstrong’s former assistant scientist Benson (Frederick Jaeger) use their Cybernaut machine to pick up and imprison a few scientific and engineering experts to assist the dastardly duo in their scheme to torment and kill Steed and Peel (Diana Rigg).
The title of the episode is a misnomer as there was only one robot used unless we count the humans enslaved by an ingenious mind control device (that can stop their hearts and kill them if they resist) as Cybernauts as well. As is usual with these Avengers episodes which were filmed on tight budgets, there are plot holes that viewers are expected to gloss over, such as how traces of skin dandruff and DNA can be used in creating a tiny nanochip in short order (say, a day or so working 24/7) that can tap into and control people’s brain functioning and thoughts, and also send an electric shock to the heart that literally stops it dead.
It has to be said that very little is done with the lone Cybernaut as something other than a killing machine: the robot could have been usefully employed serving drinks or assisting the three captured experts in designing a mind control gadget. If the robot could speak, one less character could have been used but that would have been Benson. The gadget itself is of more interest than the Cybernaut: small enough to fit into the palm of an adult hand and never straying from Beresford’s home, it nevertheless has an astonishing range of control, reaching as far as Steed’s country mansion which Peel frequents rather too frequently for someone who’s supposed to be Steed’s assistant. Once Peel places Beresford’s bracelet on her wrist, the receptor in the bracelet receives the remote message from the gadget and controls Peel’s behaviour completely. If this episode were to be shown today, I daresay the US Department of Defense would be very interested in a tiny hand-held device that could control people’s thoughts and actions by remote control, transmitting electromagnetic signals to a microchip embedded in the skin of the neck perhaps rather than through a receiver attached to a body part that can be removed or dislodged, and which could also detect thoughts of resistance and either delete them or kill the person if necessary.
The plot follows the familiar template of disappearing people with something in common and whose manner of disappearing is the same if eccentric and fantastic, the cause of which Steed and Peel must investigate and during which investigation they mess up the crime scene. They follow promising leads that take them into various by-ways, not all of which are successful or open to another lead. One of the two (often Peel) ends up being captured by the villain/s which means the other must race to rescue her/him in the nick of time. The template culminates in an all-out fight which ends only when the villains dies or is trapped by one of his (rarely her) signature devices.
At least the acting in “Return of the Cybernauts” is outstanding and there is some real development in the lead characters: the best scenes are ones where Steed is jealous of Beresford’s attentions toward Peel and makes some cutting remarks to her. Peel brushes them off, regarding them as quite amusing. Beresford plays an evil English gentleman to the hilt. Even the captive scientists distinguish themselves: Chadwick (Fulton Mackay), seduced by the money offered him, eagerly does as he’s told by Beresford and Benson while Neville (Charles Tingwell) acts as Chadwick’s foil and conscience. These characters might have struck a chord with a 1960s audience as their behaviour is reminiscent of the ways scientists in Nazi Germany coped with Adolf Hitler’s government and its control of German science: some scientists supported the Third Reich zealously and offered their services to the Nazis without a second thought; others, like Neville, worked for the government in order to control the direction of their science and ensure it wasn’t degraded by the government; still other scientists resisted and were either punished or managed to flee Germany.
A memorable episode but not in the way the producers had intended it to be.