Reviewed: The Eagle's Nest

The Eagle’s Nest was the first episode of The New Avengers to be shot and broadcast. Reviews were favourable, and it’s not hard to see why. It has a wonderful opening sequence that draws the viewer in from the start. In true vintage Avengers form, we see a man fleeing for his life, pursued by adversaries brandishing…fishing rods? The pre-credit sequence and freeze-frame concept is an improvement on the formula of the original series, where the credits preceded the action. Now we get a teaser, a hook, to whet our appetite, and then the credits keep us in suspense as we wait for the follow-up. We know from the outset that Stannard will die, just as so many did in the early moments of the original series. The only question is how. The monks, meanwhile, are wonderfully sinister, and turning them on their heads from providers of sanctuary to Stannard’s captors and murderers is very Avengers.

In fact, the script is peppered with Avengerous touches, the sort of fan-pleasing moments that make you clap your hands and bounce with glee. There are too many to mention. Steed doffs his bowler so many times in his conversation with the old lady looking for her dog that it borders on the ridiculous. Purdey continues the informal tradition of Avengers women donning fur in their premiere episodes. Steed and his plethora of luggage echo The Girl from Auntie. O’Hara and Purdey’s exchange call to mind many meetings between Emma or Tara and a similar eccentric. Purdey dons a green pseudo-Emmapeeler. And Steed’s steel-crowned bowler is brought back into service with a bang! But while it’s marvelous to have in-jokes, in some ways laying them on so heavily in the first episode does not do The New Avengers any favours. Reviews were certainly positive, touting The New Avengers as no different than its forebear (namely the Emma/Tara seasons), and based on this episode, that seems to be true. Clearly this episode was constructed to elicit fond memories of the original, to try and reassure old fans that this was their show, revived but unsullied by the passage of time. But this does not give the viewer an accurate picture of what the show would ultimately be like. The New Avengers was always aware of its ancestry, and one of its assets was its ability to draw upon that long and rich history for the occasional winking reference, or to twist old stories and motifs to fit its style. Ignoring the past would have been a mistake. But here Brian Clemens has gone overboard, and as such The New Avengers won’t truly establish its own identity until the next episode, which may have been a bit jarring to viewers who tuned in next week for more of the same.

This issue spills over to the balance between characters as well. Patrick Macnee’s claims that Steed had been put out to pasture were always unfounded, but here in particular he has absolutely nothing to complain about. Calling to mind the original series, Steed is paired with Purdey throughout much of the episode, leaving Gambit to follow his own line of inquiry, making it difficult to see them as a team. This may have been intentional, however, as Steed’s visit to Stannard implies that he is now in charge of a bevy agents, of which Gambit is one, none of whom qualify as a partner the way Emma and company did. While Gambit and Steed have clearly worked together before, Purdey seems familiar with Gambit, but not Steed, who has yet to see her in action. In that case, such a pairing is forgivable, as this story allows them to get to known one another, along with the audience. By the end, we have the brilliant closing sequence with Purdey and Gambit flanking their leader, all three striding off, whistling, a team now. This gives the viewers a sense of progression, and also serves as one of the most iconic scenes of the series.

But the more pressing problem with Eagle’s is that it feels like a pilot, particularly in regards to the new characters, Purdey and Gambit. Where Emma, Cathy, and Tara’s introductory episodes were shot well into filming, Purdey and Gambit’s first transmitted story was also the first to be filmed, and as such it’s that much more obvious that Gareth Hunt and Joanna Lumley are still feeling their way along in their portrayal of their characters and the way that they interact. Actors are often somewhat stiff when they start with a new character, and both do very well for a first try. But as a result, the Purdey/Gambit bedroom scene, clearly meant to set up the pair’s banter and flirtatious relationship, doesn’t spark the way it would later on in the series. It does give us some wonderful moments, though Gambit’s fond smile through the curtains, and his abrupt wake-up call among them, both of which are wonderfully played by Gareth.

On an individual front, Gambit’s character floats between two extremes in this episode, almost bouncy in his first scene with Purdey, then exceptionally brutal and ruthless in his first fight scene. It is in the latter that he echoes the harder-edged Steed from the Gale era. After the first few episodes of the show, Gambit’s hard edges were noticeably toned down, but that first fight and Gambit’s subsequent interrogation of the man (including the way he manhandles his victim after he takes a poison capsule) is unusually harsh for the show. While the audience is never left in any doubt as to what Gambit is capable of, by the fourth episode he will rarely be seen as quite this cold and unforgiving. Gambit would always been the hard man of the bunch, but clearly someone decided that it was necessary to tone down this aspect of the character, whether for the censors or because it was too sharp a contrast to his light-hearted relationship with Purdey. Gambit is also portrayed as the consummate professional, following procedure and conducting his investigation with great efficiency, even warding off the attentions of his German admirer until the job at hand is complete. This aspect of Gambit would be more lasting.

Purdey, meanwhile, is played as young and wide-eyed, in awe of Steed, to the point of confessing that she had defended him against Gambit’s assertion that Steed was “old-fashioned” (indicating a less-than-sanguine association between the men reminiscent of the Keel era), and wondering at his clever method of escape (a classic Steed moment that would have been at home in the best of the Peel episodes). But most notable is the way she blushes when Steed insinuates that she was involved with Stannard, and shoots Gambit a warning look to as if to say ‘don’t get the wrong idea.’ She also waits for Gambit’s departure before disclosing her more intimate knowledge regarding the missing agent. This isn’t the self-assured Purdey who later would openly rhapsodize about other men just to get a rise out of Gambit. Here she is still not confident enough to know how to play the situation. Only her ongoing love affair with food (here steak au poivre) and her fighting style are consistent with how she’ll appear later on. On a side note, it’s such a pity most of Purdey’s first major fight is clearly performed by a double, something else The New Avengers would improve upon later on.

So while there are priceless moments (Steed’s “Rule Britannia”), and the plot is wonderfully sinister and perhaps one of the best of the series, this isn’t the best package The New Avengers has to offer. The show is still in pilot mode. The characters and their interactions have yet to fully 'bed in.' The new identity has yet to be established. But The New Avengers serves as a good introduction, and that’s exactly what it is—an introduction. The best is yet to come.

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