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:
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.
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.
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,