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The Avengers and the Imminence of Science in 1960s Britain

The Avengers was a 1960s British spy thriller television series in which the lead character was a gentlemanly secret agent, John Steed, who worked with a succession of unusual and free-thinking assistants. (Note for children and Americans: very definitely not the same as Captain America and co, and the reason the first Avengers film was renamed "Avengers Assemble" in the UK!). Like a lot of television serials of this epoch, the series straddled categories, with elements of science fiction, fantasy, crime drama, surrealism and humour all mixed in with Cold War intrigue. The humour and science fiction became more prominent as the series progressed through an eight year run between 1961 and 1969, and a revival in 1976-1977.

Given the series' setting in contemporary Britain (at the time it was made) the science fiction in The Avengers was primarily expressed in the form of technological innovations which either run amok or are deliberately deployed by individuals seeking revenge, political goals, financial gain or personal advancement. The consequences may be felt by individual victims, members of families or professions, sectors of society, or have global military and political implications.

The robotic Examples of such science fiction elements include laser cannons ("From Venus with Love"), computer intelligence ("Who Killed Poor George/XR40", "Killer"), robots ("The Cybernauts"), soporifics ("The Morning After", "Sleeper"), pesticides ("The Grandeur that was Rome", "Silent Dust"), new materials ("Immortal Clay", "Propellant 23") or infectious agents ("The Golden Eggs", "Not to be Sneezed At"). The increasing prevalence of such science fiction plots was due at least in part to public demand: The Stage and Television Today noted in December 1966 that this was a deliberate decision by the programme makers in response to the popularity of two SF-heavy episodes ("A Surfeit of H20" and "The Man-Eater of Surrey Green") in the previous series.

Inevitably these SF elements were most often used as plot devices to lead to investigative confusion or humour, or to highlight the insanity of the central (often mad scientist) protagonists. Although some of the newer materials and medical innovations proposed were conceivable given the rapid pace of 1960s scientific development, many of the other innovations are wildly implausible by the standards of the science of the time, let alone today’s understanding, and there is no indication that the writers were invested in seriously exploring plausible futures. By the end of each episode the science fiction elements would usually be destroyed or proven ineffective, and there would be no long-term consequences of the invention or discovery. So, if the SF elements of The Avengers are relatively trivial compared to some of the more serious science fiction of the time and since - essentially science fantasy rather than science fiction - why am I talking about this series?

Well, as always, the first reason is that it’s just good plain fun.

The other reason, equally important, is that it’s made me think about what I’ll call the imminence of scientific discovery in the popular consciousness at the time.

Science in twenty-first century Britain tends to fall into two broad categories:

  • There’s the highly technical, intensely difficult innovation which occurs in teams based in university laboratories, government facilities or major industries, and which requires many years of training to participate in. Into this category we might put major projects like vaccine research or the detection of gravitational waves.
  • And there’s the black-box technology used in the every day, for which styling and colour is often more important and relevant to most consumers than the underlying principles on which the devices work. Into this category we might put the brightly coloured smartphones, laptops, cars or other consumer electronics.

In neither of these roles does scientific discovery appear accessible to average members of the public. Even where it is having an immediate impact on people’s lives (as in the case of the current covid pandemic), scientific innovation is something done elsewhere, by someone else and its details are fully expected to surpass an average understanding. Most progress is incremental, with few truly revolutionary breakthrough technologies (although the shiny-incomprehensibility of smartphones may well fall into this category).

It’s interesting to compare that with the state of public engagement with science in the 1960s. Big projects certainly existed in the mid-twentieth century, with the Space Race perhaps exemplifying this. There was also consumer technology starting to come onto the market, particularly in the form of telecommunications and home appliances. However in contrast to the highly miniaturised electronics of the current day, the majority of home equipment was at least broadly understandable to members of the public. This was an era when children’s comics could print cut-away diagrams of the inner workings of devices, a radio set could be built from a simple kit and an owners' manual was sufficient to repair or service a car, rather than needing a computer to access and reprogramme sealed electronics units. During the 1950s and 60s, Penguin imprint Pelican Books published a long-running and successful series of popular science paperbacks for a general audience with titles like "Plastics in the Service of Man" (Couzens & Yarsley 1956), "Organic Chemistry Today" (Gibbs 1961) and "The Boundaries of Science" (Pyke 1963) - there is an implicit assumption that technical information was not just accessible to everyone, but applicable. The potential for grass-roots scientific breakthroughs - made by anyone, anywhere was articulated by a financier in the Avengers episode "Death of a Batman" (1963):

"These men, the scientist and engineers, they’re our only hope - don’t you see that? We lent capital to a man in a small garage in Cricklewood, and today his electronics firm is the finest in the country…. there isn’t a rocket or a missile in the Western World that doesn’t owe something to him and to us."

In this context, science was something happening all around, and involving everyone. Counterintuitively then, despite the narrative of constant scientific advancement, knowledge of practical science was far more part of the everyday world - more imminent - fifty years ago than it is now.

The prevalence of science fiction themes and elements in The Avengers then reflects the extent to which members of the viewing public expected their lives to be changed by a rapid succession of technical innovations, and the extent to which scientific information formed part of a popular discourse. While many of The Avengers’ inventions were wildly unfeasible from a technical point of view, the idea that one person could come up with life-changing innovations, often working in private, sometimes just in their home or office, was close enough to plausibility for audiences to accept and enjoy the storylines. The range of areas involved - from cybernetics to microbiology - makes clear just how many different aspects of life were seen as being in (or vulnerable to) flux.

It’s also worth looking at the scientists in The Avengers, and what we can learn from them - always taking into account the comic exaggeration that was so frequent in the series and turned many of the supporting characters into caricatures. In his essay “The Medium is the Message” (1994, The Avengers Programme Guide), Keith Topping noted that “any analysis of the 1960s usually has to conclude that whilst the era produced scientific wonder, the public was so frightened of out-of-control technology that such advances were regarded as little more than another step towards Armageddon”. That pretty much aligns with my own reading of the series: The Avengers both recognises the fantastic potential of science (exploring the opportunities of automation and disease mitigation) and betrays a deep unease about its potential for misuse (whether deliberate or accidental).

John Steed and Emma Peel in the mid-1960s.As to the roots of this unease? Well, there are two strong hints implicit in the series itself. The first of these is the obvious: the Cold War themes which drive a large fraction of episodes articulate the constant fear of nuclear catastrophe that the public of the 1960s lived under, a fear closely associated with innovations in physics and engineering. The second hint can perhaps be found in the juxtaposition between protagonist Steed and his successive colleagues. Steed exemplifies the role of a traditional English Gentleman - urbane, publicly educated, champagne-drinking, affluent, well-dressed and never incorrect. By contrast first Cathy Gale, then Emma Steed, Tara King, Mike Gambit and Purdey (setting aside for a moment the first formative season) are modern, up-to-date, fast-moving and exciting. They exemplify the pace of change not only driven by technical innovation but also fundamental alterations of the class system, agricultural reform, wealth redistribution, welfare systems, gender politics and societal norms. Through comparison with the stable figure of Steed, they highlight rate at which the world and society in the United Kingdom were having to adapt and the inevitable accompanying fear of the unknown and its hazards. Many of these other changes were explored alongside the scientific in the series.

And the scientists themselves? Well the majority fall into the classic stereotypes: educated white men, either white haired and arrogant, or young and rebellious. Many fit the trope of the helpless genius overtaken by events, while others are (or aspire to be) criminal masterminds. A handful follow another familiar trope: that of the rational scientist who prioritises logic over emotion, always to their cost and that of those around them. But there is nonetheless a nod towards some democratisation of science in The Avengers. A handful of female scientists appear - for example the episode “The White Dwarf” (1963) features both women scientists and an astronomer of Indian extraction, while in “From Venus with Love” (1967) a woman named Venus Brown is described as having studied at Jodrell Bank. There are also a number of private or small-time inventors, from a range of backgrounds.

All in all then, The Avengers is not exactly SF (just as it’s not exactly spy-fi, or crime fiction, or… just about any single category). It has to be interpreted through the mask of humour and exaggeration. It nonetheless offers some interesting insights into how science and scientists were perceived in its time.

"The Avengers and the Imminence of Science in 1960s Britain", Elizabeth Stanway, Cosmic Stories blog, 30th May 2021.