Reviewed: Making it New? A Reappraisal of The New Avengers

The New Avengers

Unbelievably, it has taken thirty-seven years for the first book dedicated to The New Avengers to appear. Since its premiere in 1976, the show has spawned a number of spin-off novels and a pair of 1980s Avengers Files episode guides, but no text devoted solely to documenting or examining the show has been produced. At best, the show has been included in books devoted to the whole of the Avengers pantheon, such as Dave Rogers’ The Complete Avengers or Andrew Pixley’s excellent The Avengers Files (from 2004, and not to be confused in any way, shape, or form with the aforementioned episode guides by John Peel). At worst, it has been omitted altogether from Avengers texts, including, rather unforgivably, the glossy hardcover volume The Avengers: A Celebration, which was published in 2011 to mark the series’ fiftieth anniversary.

This is what makes Rodney Marshall’s Making it New? A Reappraisal of The New Avengers a breath of fresh air. Its November, 2013 release ended the long wait for a solely New Avengers-centric volume. The book is to be celebrated by New Avengers fans for that reason alone.

Marshall, the son of Roger Marshall (a writer on the original Avengers series who penned the classic episode The Hour that Never Was, amongst others), has also authored two books on the original series: Subversive Champagne, which examines the Emma Peel era; and Adventure and Comic Strip, which is devoted to the Tara King episodes. All three slim volumes attempt to discern what made each of the respective eras tick by searching for answers to that elusive question, “What makes a good Avengers episode?” In doing so, Marshall holds The New Avengers up to the same standards he applied to its predecessor, arguing that, regardless of the era, the best Avengers episodes consisted of a “constant interplay between light entertainment and a darker, more disturbing drama” (Making it New?, p. 9). A secondary thesis, particular to The New Avengers, goes to the heart of the show’s identity crisis: is the show better described as The NEW Avengers or The New AVENGERS? This is a question that every New Avengers fan will have struggled with at one point or another, which makes it ideal material for a written analysis on the series.

It should be noted that, while all three books are thoughtful and thought-provoking, they are also very accessible reads, easy to delve into either from the beginning, or by choosing an episode at random. While most certainly on the analytical/critical end of the spectrum, they forgo the pretentious, overdone tone of which some of the other, more academic examinations of the series were guilty. Marshall is able to convey his points articulately without needlessly muddying the waters with jargon, making for a much more enjoyable read in the process.

Rather than comprehensively cover every episode, Marshall instead examines a selection of stories, thirteen in all (if one counts both halves of the two-parter K is for Kill). In each case, Marshall explains the reasons behind his selection, and even the omitted episodes receive a look-in with brief explanations for their exclusion. The four Canadian-made episodes, while not meriting their own chapters, garner a mini-essay surveying the entire block. Because of Marshall’s ideal Avengers episode criteria of light entertainment coupled with disturbing drama, his choices are sometimes surprising. While some of the usual favourites make the cut (Target!, Dead Men are Dangerous), others are noticeable by their absence (Faces), and still others are granted a welcome turn in the spotlight (Dirtier by the Dozen).

Marshall’s approach therefore allows for an examination of the series from a new perspective, ironically by analysing the episodes using the same criteria he applied to the original series, while at the same time embracing the fact that the world, and the show, had moved on by the 1970s. Fresh evaluations and insights are the result. (A parallel between the episode Target! and a video game will make the reader wonder why no one has written about it before). New questions are also raised. Are Sleeper and Angels of Death the best the series had to offer? Was the show still struggling with the class issue, even though working-class Gambit was one of the leads? What should we make of the series’ penchant for self-referentiality? Marshall also highlights the series’ subtle pieces of social commentary on everything from the UK economy, to government surveillance, and, a favourite of the original series, the dangers of technology. And he even pens a few words in support of the much-maligned, but hugely enjoyable, seventies “wah-wah” guitar background music.

If there is one criticism to be levelled at the book, it is its secondary emphasis on the characters in favour of a broader perspective on each episode as a whole. In Marshall’s defence, he readily admits that applying the same criteria to both the original series and The New Avengers leads to the exclusion of otherwise good episodes from his final choices. His reasons for doing so—that the same basic ingredients are needed to make up a good Avengers episode, regardless of the era—cannot be faulted, and serve the series well by encouraging it to rise to the standard of its predecessor. But it cannot be denied that The New Avengers differed from the original series with its “thicker cardboard” characters, with the result that many episodes took on a personal dimension for the leads. For many New Avengers fans, the emotionally-charged character moments are the most significant of the series, and it would prove difficult for them to discuss the series in any depth without reference to episodes such as Faces or Obsession. While the relationships within the triumvirate are examined to an extent, character largely takes a backseat to other aspects of the episodes’ construction. For some episodes, this leaves a sense that something is missing from an otherwise well-crafted analysis.

Overall, however, The New Avengers is well-served by the first book solely devoted to its brief tenure. Marshall dares to hold the series up to the same standard as its forebear, and argues that, at its best, it was more than capable of rising to the challenge, while at the same time putting its own unique stamp on the Avengers formula, just as every season of the show had done before it. Every New Avengers fan should own a copy, and for those original Avengers fans who have thus far proven immune to The New Avengers’s charms, the book might yet persuade them to give their favourite series’ “sequel” another look.

The book includes individual chapters for each of the following episodes:

Making it New? is available on Amazon, as are Marshall's Adventure and Comic Strip: Exploring Tara King's The Avengers and Subversive Champagne: Beyond Genre in The Avengers (The Emma Peel era)

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