Monday, August 28, 2023

The Avengers Series 4-6 Blu-ray Upgrade

In a recent blog post, I discussed "upgrading" the videotaped half of The Avengers from Region 1 DVDs to Region 2 DVDs. The TLDR version of that entry was that the upgrade was worth it. Now I have obtained the Region B Blu-rays of Series 4-6, I intend to offer my thoughts on them versus the Region 1 DVDs as a sequel of sorts to the prior blog entries.

The Avengers was a popular show in the U.K. by Series 3 but did not achieve international fame until Season 4. Series 4 and its successors shot on 35mm film, which was vital to the show's long-term success. 35mm filming was more expensive than videotape due to several factors, increased location shooting, higher wages for film crews, employment of stunt doubles, greater costs of editing and developing film prints. Glamor and sophistication were among the top priorities of the filmed series. Wardrobes had to be from high-end fashion designers, the music had to be fully orchestrated. and better quality guest stars tended to be employed Color filming for Series 5 & 6 added more even expense. However some British shows in the 1950s-1970s shot on film because the profits that could be gained by overseas sales to the American market made the gamble worthwhile.

Fortunately, where film negative or prints of filmed shows like The Avengers survive, that is a boon for those seeking to watch a high-definition presentation of them. Videotape and telecines of TV shows shot with standard definition video cameras can only so much detail. While DVD can show a film scan in better quality more-or-less as well as a broadcast master, Blu-ray can give a far, far better presentation of a film scan than any contemporary broadcast could have. Due to the consistently high bitrates, a well-authored Blu-ray will often look better than even a 4K stream of the same show or film.

The Avengers U.S. DVD Releases for Series 4-6

A&E The Avengers '65-'66 DVD Title Caption
A&E The Avengers '67 DVD Title Caption

Back in the mid-1990s, A&E released restored versions of the Series 5 episodes for broadcast and on VHS. They soon went onto give Series 4 the same treatment. On VHS they released them in sets of three tapes, with each tape usually consisting of two episodes. In 1999 they released Series 4 & 5 on DVD with two discs to a set containing the same packaging style and episodes of the VHS releases. Whether on VHS or DVD, Series 4 and 5 had four of these sets each. Series 6 was released more-or-less simultaneously on VHS and DVD in 2001-2002 but was not given a full VHS treatment. The full A&E release of Series 6 comes on five sets with 2 DVDs each.

A&E The Avengers '68 DVD Title Caption
A&E The New Avengers '76 DVD Title Caption

A&E did not give the series sensible names to their releases like "Season 4" or "Series 5". Instead they went by years based on the original transmission date of the episodes.  So Series 4 was released as "The Avengers '65" and "The Avengers '66", Series 5 as "The Avengers '67" and Series 6 as "The Avengers '68". A&E later released all the Series 4 & 5 stories as "The Complete Emma Peel Megaset" and in 2006 included a Bonus Disc in that set. The Bonus Disc could be purchased separately. A&E's releases were almost totally barebones in terms of extra features.

The Avengers U.K. DVD & Blu-ray Releases for Series 4-6

Network Releasing Blu-ray Series 4 Title Caption

While there previous disc releases of The Avengers from Contender, the definitive DVD releases of the show (all Series) came in 2009-2010 from Studio Canal's Optimum Releasing label. These are packed with special features and feature a more recent restoration than what A&E had available in the 1990s. Studio Canal also released a Complete 50th Anniversary Collection in 2011 and included a Special Features Disc.  This disc can be purchased separately. 

Network Releasing Blu-ray Series 5 Title Caption

Series 4, 5 & 6 were later released on Blu-ray in 2015. They are Region B. The DVD extras appear to be fully ported over from the DVDs with the deletion of the PDF material (scripts, TV Times, ABC Production paperwork).  Apparently no one at Studio Canal ever thought that some computers come with Blu-ray drives and Blu-ray discs can store data of any kind, not just Blu-ray video files. Series 5 & 6 on DVD came with reprints of their respective promotional brochures. Both the DVDs and the Blu-rays share the same number of discs, 7 each for Series 4 & 5, 9 for Series 6 and their content should mirror each other with the exception of the extras noted above. The extras from the A&E bonus disc can be found somewhere on the Studio Canal DVDs (except The New Avengers episode).

Studio Canal Blu-ray Series 6 Title Caption

It should be noted that A&E put "The Forget-Me-Knot", Emma Peel's final episode, as part of Series 5. However this episode was produced well after Series 6 had started production, so the U.K. discs put it on their Series 6 releases.  It should be noted that "The Forget-Me-Knot" was broadcast in a U.S. season with the latter half of the color Emma Peel episodes and the first Tara King episodes, so that division makes more sense for the U.S. market.

Technical Qualities of the Series 4-6 U.K. Blu-rays

Each main episode of Series 4-6 is presented in 1080/24p with a lossless mono audio track. The extras are usually presented in 576/25i, just like on the DVDs. You might ask why are the episodes presented at 24fps on Blu-ray when the U.K. broadcast standard was 50i and The Avengers was produced in that country. Since the introduction of sound film in 1927, the standard projection speed was 24fps. I do not know when 25fps began to be used for 35mm film or how prevalent its use was. I know that 16mm 25fps film shooting was very common in Europe, but those sequences and features were intended for TV broadcast. I also know that The Avengers was shot on film to appeal to U.S. TV networks, who would only be familiar with transmitting 24fps film at that time. The most informed fans of the show have stated that the series was shot at 24fps, and as some of them have worked with the original broadcast masters and film prints and interviewed people who worked on the production of The Avengers, I will consider their statements as authoritative.

A&E The Avengers '65 DVD "Death at Bargain Prices"

Studio Canal Series 4 Blu-ray "Death at Bargain Prices"

The presentation has its good and bad points. The good points are that the episode list is included on the back of inner packaging. Of course they give the episodes by disc number, but the disc labels only state the episode numbers, not names or even the disc number. This makes finding the correct disc a little more difficult than it should have been. The back of the slipcover identifies the special features but does not say on which disc (except for obvious things like commentaries) the feature is located.  You can find that information here for Series 4

The packaging is made of rather thin cardboard. My sets did not survive the journey across the pond without a few blunted corners. The discs themselves are held in place by plastic inserts but the inserts are only held together by their edges and adhesive on the exterior of the last insert to the cardboard inner cover. The packaging is not likely to survive frequent handling unless the greatest care is employed.

A&E The Avengers '65 DVD "Dial a Deadly Number"

Studio Canal Series 4 Blu-ray "Dial a Deadly Number"

Studio Canal did put effort into the quality of actual A/V presentation. Much credit is due to producer Jaz Wiseman, who successfully fought with the French executives at Studio Canal to release the longer U.K. versions of the episodes on Blu-ray instead of its original plan to use the shorter U.S. versions (shortened to give more time for commercials) which were then dubbed into French and German. Audio errors plagued the pressings of most of their 2009-2010 DVD box sets due to the conversion to speedup from 24fps to 25fps/50i required for Region 2 PAL discs, those issues are gone with these Blu-rays. Each episode has an average size of 9-10GiB on disc, and as each disc has three or four episodes, dual-layer Blu-rays are used for all discs. The menus are simple and functional. The only nuisance is that the Studio Canal logo plays when you start a disc and before each episode. 

While the audio and visual quality may not be perfect on every episode, the improvements to the video are huge over the A&E DVDs. Of special note is the Series 6, the Tara King season, which looks way better than the DVDs. It probably was the victim of neglect due to a dislike of that season or the character of Tara by some people.  I have put screenshots up all around this blog entry to give you some idea of the qualities of both old and new.

Series 4 Dual-Language Release

A&E The Avengers '67 DVD "Who's Who"

Studio Canal Series 5 Blu-ray "Who's Who"

The Series 4 release was produced as a dual U.K./German release, and these discs have a Deutschland/United Kingdom region selection screen that is displayed as soon as the disc starts. If you select "Germany" you have the option to watch the episodes with introductions in German (no English subtitles) and German dubbing for the episodes. If you select "United Kingdom" you will go to the regular menu where you can access the main episodes with the original voices. 

The German introductions are done by Oliver Kalkofe and Wolfgang Bahro. If you are not German these two men will probably be unknown to you, however many native Germans should recognize them.  Kalkofe is known as a comedian, satirist and a long-time TV critic who provides humorous commentary on bad films Rifftrax-style. Bahro is best known as an actor and has played the same part of a ruthless lawyer on the soap opera "Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten" since 1992. They profess to be fans of the show and from what a German friend of mine related to me about one of their introductions, they appear to know what they are talking about. 

A&E The Avengers '67 DVD "Death's Door"

Studio Canal Series 5 Blu-ray "Death's Door"

Series 5 & 6 was not produced as a dual U.K./German release, so Kalkofe and Bahro are not on those discs. The German Series 5 Blu-ray has them and Kalkofe produced some supplements for the Series 6 Blu-rays. No German voice tracks are present either for these Series on the U.K. Blu-rays.   The German contributions may have been ported over from the DVDs, but they are shown in 1080/50i on the Series 4 Blu-ray.

American and Australian Blu-rays

While Series 5 of The Avengers was given a Region A Blu-ray U.S. "Season 5" release courtesy of Lionsgate Films, it suffers from three major flaws. The first is that it put 25 episodes (adding "The Forget-Me-Knot") onto three dual-layer Blu-rays versus the 24 episodes put onto seven dual-layer Blu-rays of the U.K. release.  The average episode size is approximately 50% of the U.K. releases and the bit rate and picture quality sufferx accordingly. The second is that these discs are barebones, so no extra features are present. 

A&E The Avengers '68 DVD "The Rotters"

Studio Canal Series 6 Blu-ray "The Rotters"

The third and perhaps most most insidious flaw in that the audio was pitch shifted upwards for the U.S. discs compared to the U.K. discs. The U.K. discs sound correct with the pitch matching the 24fps playback, but the U.S. discs sound like they were slowed down in frame rate without reversing the half-semitone pitch shift which results when 24fps material is played back at 25fps.  A fourth, minor flaw is that "THE AVENGERS IN COLOR" Title which preceded each episode is not present on the U.S. Blu-ray even though it was on the U.K. Blu-ray and the old A&E DVDs. This is ironic as that card was only shown on U.S. broadcasts as ITV did not begin broadcasting in color until late 1969. This disc set was released in 2014, before the U.K. sets. Apparently the release did not do well enough to persuade Lionsgate or anyone else in the U.S. to pick up Series 4 or 6.

In late 2022 Imprint Films in Australia released The Emma Peel Collection on Blu-ray. This set includes all episodes from Series 4 & 5 and "The Forget-Me-Knot" episode from Series 6. Unlike the U.S. Season 5 release, it includes plenty of extras. These discs are Region Free and will play on U.S. players.  Two of the Blu-rays are devoted to the Special Features. Some of these special features are not found on the U.K. sets.  

A&E The Avengers '68 DVD "The Morning After"

Studio Canal Series 6 Blu-ray "The Morning After"

However, it should be noted that the extras have lower picture quality on these releases than the U.K. discs. Most of the U.K. discs extras were presented at 576/50i or 1080/50i, which presents no issue to TVs and players outside NTSC countries. However, the extras on the Australian discs are presented in 480/60i and 1080/60i, presumably so U.S. TVs can play this content without compatibility issues. According to one poster on The Avengers International Fan Forum, the conversion was not done well. The four episodes from the Cathy Gale era, which were remade in Series 5 are on the Special Features disc but are in 480/60i, so you will be getting a downgrade over the standalone U.K. DVDs identified in a previous blog entry

A&E The Avengers '68 DVD "The Interrogators"

Studio Canal Series 6 Blu-ray "The Interrogators"

The set is also rather expensive at $189.95 AUD. I paid $91.36 USD total combined for the U.K. Seasons 4, 5 & 6 from Rarewaves last month. It is relatively easy to play Region B discs in the USA, I recommend using the PS3 method, find one that can have Debug CFW installed so you can watch the 576/50i and 1080/50i extras.  The modded PS3 Slim I own works very well for every Region B Blu-ray I own, including The Avengers.

The Cybernauts Trilogy and The New Avengers

Network Releasing The Cybernaut Trilogy Blu-ray The New Avengers Title Caption

In late 2019, Studio Canal released The Cybernauts Trilogy on Blu-ray in the U.K. This is a three episode compilation of all three "Avengers Cybernauts " stories, "The Cybernauts" from Season 4, "Return of the Cybernauts" from Season 5 and "Last of the Cybernauts. . . ??" from The New Avengers. Their sole special feature is the ability to play the episodes as their aired with ad breaks and vintage commercials. This disc was released by Network Releasing, not Studio Canal (under license from Studio Canal).

The first two Cybernauts stories have previously been released in the Series 4 & 5 boxsets. The episodes' negatives have been newly scanned in 2K and mastered for this release, whereas the prior masters date from 2009-2010, possibly earlier. The improvement on "The Cybernauts" may not be as significant due to the black and white nature of the original source material but there are differences in contrast. If you like a more noirish look, watch the Series 4 Blu-ray, if you like a more varied grayscale, watch the the Trilogy version. I personally prefer the audio of the Series 4 Blu-ray, the Trilogy's audio sounds comparatively muffled.  The production notes on the inside of the Blu-ray cover state that the 1960s episodes were filtered for improved quality.

A&E The Avengers '65 DVD "The Cybernauts"

Studio Canal Series 4 Blu-ray "The Cybernauts"

Network Releasing The Cybernaut Trilogy Blu-ray "The Cybernauts"

While The Cybernauts' improvements may be minor, the same cannot be said about its sequel. "Return of the Cybernauts" on the Series 5 Blu-ray is a transfer that is weak by comparison to other episodes in that set. The brightness levels are too low and the image as whole has a significant orange push which makes flesh tones look unnatural. Those issues have been rectified on this new release. The audio is a little muffled on the Trilogy version compared to the Series 5 Blu-ray, but the muffle is less obvious than with The Cybernauts.

A&E The Avengers '67 DVD "Return of the Cybernauts"

Studio Canal Series 5 Blu-ray "Return of the Cybernauts"

Network Releasing The Cybernaut Trilogy Blu-ray "Return of the Cybernauts"

The biggest draw of this release is The New Avengers episode "Last of the Cybernauts...??" which marks the first and only episode of the series which has been released on Blu-ray. The full series of The New Avengers has been released on DVD both in Region 1 and Region 2. A&E released it in 2003-04. Contender Entertainment Group released the series in 2002 and Studio Canal released it through their Optimum Releasing label in 2006. The U.K. 2006 release from Studio Canal/Optimum has extras, the A&E DVDs do not.  According to Rewind @, the German Region 2 DVDs have no cuts whereas the U.S. and U.K. have a tiny omission each. Studio Canal has not released The New Avengers on Blu-ray even though as a filmed series, it could see substantial improvement by migrating to the high definition format. 

The improvement of "Last of the Cybernauts...??" on The Cybernauts Trilogy is obvious and impressive. The DVDs looked a bit ugly and faded, the Blu-ray has proper color grading, brightness and contrast and the film looks much healthier.  The hiss in the soundtrack with the old DVD is very much reduced and the audio has some welcome improvement in the low end. Unfortunately there are 26 episodes of The New Avengers and it had been rumored several years ago that Network was planning on a Blu-ray release. Network's discs (of which I own too few) were well-regarded among producers of physical media, but the company went into liquidation in May, 2023 (a sad day for physical media lovers), so the door is closed on that possibility.

A&E The New Avengers '76 DVD "The Last of the Cybernauts...??"

Network Releasing The Cybernaut Trilogy Blu-ray "The Last of the Cybernauts...??"

Unfortunately The Cybernauts Trilogy Blu-ray is out of print, perhaps due to Network's liquidation, and the usually reliable retailers are out of stock. The price for the disc has increased significantly and only a few are available for sale even on sites like eBay. There was a limited edition with a 32-page booklet from Andrew Pixley included, but it seems that later releases omitted that booklet. I was most fortunate to acquire an "unlimited release" inexpensively through a friend who lived overseas, but unless The Cybernauts Trilogy is restocked, be prepared to pay scalper prices for it. I am heavily indebted to Greg Bakun/From the Archive's YouTube review of The Cybernauts Trilogy for bringing to my attention the effort and improvements which went into this release.

So, if you want the TLDR version of this blog entry, the Studio Canal Series 4-6 Blu-rays are definitely worth the upgrade, especially if you have an older DVD set.  For now, The Cybernaut Trilogy is a worthy addition to your The Avengers collection only if you can find it at a reasonable ($40) price. More screen captures from these discs are in this Google Photos Album

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